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!

The Martian Seasonal Calendar


A Flag For Mars

With the colonization of Mars so recently making headlines, I’ve decided to spend my Leif Erikson Day making my own small contribution to exploration.

I had talked before about a human approach to timekeeping on the Red Planet, but my concepts for calendar keeping have been through a couple iterations over the years.

What makes my approach different is that it focuses on the thing that makes the Earth calendar most relevant – the seasons.

The Martian Seasonal Calendar

  • Epoch: The calendar begins Year 1 shortly after the austral winter solstice of 27 October 1955. Roughly similar to Mars Year 1 in Planetary Science, shifted by one season.
  • Day of Week Collision: The Mars 2 probe crash of Saturday, 21 Nov 1971 / MSD 38404.  Future MSD % 0 = Saturday.
  • Autumnal equinox year of 668.5940 days
  • Month length about 30 days. Seasons are divided into a whole number of months.


  • The days of the week are not renamed just for Mars.
  • Whether “day” or “sol” is preferred for someone living on Mars is left to future consideration.
  • The names of the months should be representative of cultural perspectives on the planet Mars from various cultures.  I can make suggestions, but really, an IAU process should develop a final list.


  • Austral Winter months – 178 days
    • 6 Months of 31, 29, 29, 29, 29, 31 days
  • Austral Spring months – 142(143) days
    • 5 Months of 29, 28, 28(29), 28, 29 days
  • Austral Summer months – 154 days
    • 5 Months of 32, 30, 30, 30, 32 days
  • Austral Autumn months – 194 days
    • 6 Months of 33, 32, 32, 32, 32, 33 days

Seasons have months of equal length “bookended” by slightly longer months.

Solstices and Equinoxes precede the start of a month by 2-3 days.  Radiative Forcing will keep the start of the 12th month about the maximum temperature for the Southern Hemisphere.

Leap Days occur in the 9th Month, halfway between the autumnal equinox and southern solstice, relatively close to perihelion.  Even if another point in the year is chosen for the basis of the tropical year, this is probably the best spot to place the leap day.


Odd-numbered years have 669 days and Even-numbered years 668. Years ending in 0 shall also have a leap day, but 6 decadal years of each millennium (170, 330, 500, 670, 830, and 1000) are not leap years.  Average year: 668.594 days.

Some background thoughts

The Autumnal equinox year is a 180 from the Vernal equinox year.  On the surface, it upends millennia of timekeeping convention, but it’s worth noting that Earth culture has been dominated by Northern Hemisphere sensibilities due in part to the much greater landmass above the equator.

When Mars still had its oceans, they occupied the Northern Hemisphere. The Autumnal equinox is also closer to perihelion, and the peak of the Martian dust storm season, the major weather event of the year.


Things every Medical Device Startup needs to know

atdc-theclubhouseMy visit to (more on the space soon) coincided with an ATDC talk on how to get a medical devices startup going. There’s an ongoing gold rush in the industry that has been tempered by harsh realities, and the overall effect of the Affordable Care Act, if anything, is a rush toward cheaper, then better.

It’s not easy for startups these days. The FDA, which used to look over clinical data and rubberstamp new devices for free, now has hefty filing fees – a new device from a major company pays over a quarter-million dollars just for initial approval, a process that takes up to three years. The small business “discount” lowers this to $65k.

Good luck raising money for a new idea. Probably the best way is with economic development or research grants, which are available from the public and private sector if you can keep your ear to the ground. If you can’t get a grant, try selling the concept directly to doctors, who will provide a ready market for your device. VCs and Angel Investors will take a cut of the company, without giving much in return. Loans are worse, if you feel bad about going bankrupt (which you will, because faceless banks aren’t going to make a startup loan).

Of course, there’s the nothing-new option: If you can make a convincing case that what you make is just a modern version of something that was in the market in 1976, of all years, then your product can receive an approval at the lightning speed of 6 months from now! Just pay $1600 a year for your federal registration.

Generally, to get FDA approval, you need clinical data. But to get clinical data, your device needs to see broad enough use somewhere. If you have something brand new, you aren’t going to be able to afford a private research study for your device in a broad context. So where are device manufacturers getting their launch data from? Europe, of all places. CE Rating is an easier, faster process, and Europe has a well-developed distribution network for medical devices. After a few years of sales abroad, you’ll get the track record you need to press forward in the States.

And then you’re really on your own! Once you’ve got your Rolodex out and accepted the fact that you’re a glorified telemarker now, you’ve got to convince hospitals and private practices to buy your device. And here, you’ve got three or four separate battles. Are insurers going to pay for your treatment? If you can convince them to file it under an existing treatment code, rather than make a new one, you’ll be fine.

There’s the issue of having separate markets in each state, often with unique licence requirements, and differing accounting standards. Among the worst for sales? New York and New Jersey, whose hospitals notoriously pay bills 6 months after the fact, when they actually pay them. Better states: Michigan, Florida, California. The device market tracks heavily with the number of older people in a state, go figure.

Can you get your thingamabob into a standard kit for the treatment you’re enhancing? This is where you really start thinking about selling out – every needle and scalpel in those things might very well be from a vertically integrated conglomerate.

Say you’re a tech entrepreneur aiming to make a million dollars. The exact words the lecturer used was “plan your exit” – the idea that, as soon as someone else has a major equity interest in your company, you basically aren’t going to run it forever anyway, so you may as well sell out, move on to the next idea. How to get there? Well, pharmaceutical patents are a headline item, those are still worth something. A device patent? Big companies have been known to buy others just for patents, kind of an external R&D thing, but they’re way more likely to buy out one with a working business model.

As someone who has mainly viewed the device industry as an endless march of ever-pricier doodads threatening to crush the national budget with nonogenarian cyborgs, it’s heartening to hear that the Affordable Care Act is finally getting more patients to feel the sticker shock. Instead of just going for “the best,” as doctors always recommended when money was no object – people are starting to settle for “good enough.” The real growth in the industry might just be finding ways to perform the same old treatments for less. It’s not the glitzy cutting edge engineers often want to live on, but inventing a cheaper wheel is not all dull retread work, either.

Gulf Coast Stuff

I got to see where they make planes and boats in Mobile, a couple fun things in Pensacola, and I managed to stop in Tallahassee to pay a little homage to Dr. Paul Dirac.

Gainesville was a great stop, too. Skillhouse is a great makerspace, they aren’t shy of giving first-time visitors computer help, for one. Tuesday night open houses can go super late, so it’s handy they have such a great break room!  Of what I saw, they’re more of a coding/electronics type of group, but to be fair, I only saw their “clean” space, in a downtown stripmall basement — the group also runs a woodworking shed across town.  The projects folks brought in ranged from an automatic plant waterer, to a bike rigged up to float a ping-pong ball in a tube.

Gainesville has an “innovation corridor” that runs from the University of Florida campus through downtown. One of these startups is a place called Fractureme, a service where they turn a piece of glass into a Kodakchrome piece of art. No need to frame – the back is foam-padded with cutouts, ready to hang on the wall! They come in padded mailers, and naturally they do replace the rare one the breaks.

Less blog more tweets!

My scheduling being what it is, it will be difficult to do full-length posts and make the most of the time remaining in the trip. So to throw up my hands, I’ll be basically doing a postcard/twitblog approach for the rest of the month, perhaps some short posts when appropriate.

Except for a lecture write-up I’m working on from Augusta, Georgia, which may come out in the middle of this photodump, everything should be able to stay in chronological order.  The next post in the vein of the trip is going to be about some things on the Gulf Coast but mainly SkillHouse in Gainesville, Florida.

Also, I will not be able to visit the Charlottesville Mini Maker Faire at the end of this month. Instead, I’ll be visiting some places in Ohio, Michigan, and potentially Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

The end of the trip is still going according to plan: Washington, DC in April, though the postings may stretch into May.  Also during that time, I’ll beef up the older posts as appropriate, and really start digging into the teensy minutiae like the best Hacker Heraldry.

Thanks again for your eyeballs! -j5