Tag Archives: spacecraft

Russian Soyuz Spacecraft Malfunction Delays Arrival at ISS by 2 Days


The Soyuz TMA-12M rocket launches from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, March 26, 2014 carrying Expedition 39 Soyuz Commander Alexander Skvortsov of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, Flight Engineer Steven Swanson of NASA, and Flight Engineer Oleg Artemyev of Roscosmos to the International Space Station.
Image: NASA Joel Kowsky

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft suffered an apparent malfunction in orbit late on March 25, forcing its three-man crew to circle the Earth two extra days before reaching the International Space Station as planned, NASA officials say.

The Soyuz TMA-12M space capsule launched into space March 25 carrying an American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts on what was expected to be a standard six-hour trip to the International Space Station. But a malfunction on the Soyuz spacecraft prevented a critical engine burn to keep the capsule on course for its planned orbital arrival on the night of March 25.

Riding aboard the Soyuz are NASA astronaut Steve Swanson and cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev. The U.S.-Russian crew will now arrive at the station on the evening of March 27, NASA spokesman Josh Byerly said in an update.

“The crew is fine, but the ground teams are taking a look at what exactly happened aboard the Soyuz and what caused that [engine] burn to be skipped,” Byerly said during NASA’s televised coverage.

Russian Soyuz engineers are unsure if a software glitch or a mechanical malfunction caused the problem, Byerly said. An initial look at conversations between mission flight controllers in Moscow and Houston suggests, that the problem may beem caused by the Soyuz not being in the proper orientation for the planned engine burn, according to a NASA status update.

The Soyuz capsule launched into orbit atop a Russian-built Soyuz rocket from the Central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:17 p.m. EDT. Its crew planned to join three other crewmates already aboard the station with docking at 11:05 p.m. EDT.

Now, Swanson and his crewmates must wait until March 27 at 7:58 p.m. EDT to link up with the International Space Station, Byerly said, adding that the exact time of the docking could change.

“They have supplies to keep them in orbit for many, many days,” Byerly said of the three space travelers.

Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft originally flew on two-day rendezvous flights to the space station similar to the backup trajectory the current Soyuz mission is forced to fly now. It is a two-day trip that includes 32 orbits of Earth in order to catch up with the space station. The last two-day Soyuz trip before this mission was in December 2012.

Russia’s Federal Space Agency began flying shorter, six-hour trips to the space station with unmanned cargo ships in 2012. The first crewed single-day trips to station on Soyuz vehicles launched in 2013.

Expedition 39 Launch
This long expsoure photograph shows the flight path of the Soyuz TMA-12M rocket as it launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, March 26, 2014.

A standard six-hour trip to the International Space Station includes four orbits of the Earth and requires four major engine burn maneuvers, performed automatically by the spacecraft, in order to reach the International Space Station.

Byerly said the Soyuz TMA-12M’s flight computer failed to perform the third maneuver in the flight sequence slated for 7:48 p.m. EDT.

“Right now we don’t understand exactly what happened, so we’ll analyze and review all the telemetry of it,” a Russian flight controller radioed the Soyuz crew, according to a audio translation.

Russia’s three-person Soyuz spacecraft are currently the only vehicles capable of ferrying astronaut and cosmonaut crews to and from the International Space Station. NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011, and is dependent on Russian Soyuz vehicles to fly American astronauts to the station and back. The U.S. space agency plans to fly American astronauts on commercial U.S. spacecraft beginning in 2017.

Swanson, Skvortsov and Artemyev are due to spend nearly six months in space during their current mission, which will bridge the space station’s Expedition 39 and 40 crews. The trio will join Expedition 29’s Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin already aboard the station, then stay on to serve as the outpost’s Expedition 40 crew.

Editor’s Note:

This story was updated at 10:50 pm ET to clarify that the cause of the Soyuz spacecraft’s missed engine burn is being studied as a possible software issue, mechanical malfunction or incorrect attitude.

This article originally published at Space.com

Read more: http://mashable.com/2014/03/26/russian-soyuz-spacecraft-malfunction/

Deep Space Missions Get Boost As Production Of Plutonium-238 Restarts

For the first time in nearly 30 years, plutonium-238 has been produced in the U.S., returning a key capability to spacecraft. This isotope of plutonium is essential for powering missions into deep space, and with the worlds stockpile running low, proposals for future NASA missions had been left in the lurch.

Now, mission planners can rest easy, as50 grams (0.1 pounds) of plutonium oxide were produced by the U.S. Department of Energys Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee just before Christmas 2015.Its a small amount, but the beginnings of steady production of the isotope. ORNL is aiming for up to 400 grams (0.9 pounds) per year at first, rising to 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) in the near future.

Once we automate and scale up the process, the nation will have a long-range capability to produce radioisotope power systems such as those used by NASA for deep space exploration, said Bob Wham, project lead at the labs Nuclear Security and Isotope Technology Division, in a statement.

With a half-life of 87.7 years, plutonium-238 steadily decays into uranium-234. Each gram that decays produces about 0.5 watts of thermal power, which can be used by spacecraft to power their various instruments and systems with a radioisotope thermonuclear generator (RTG). The Curiosity rover on Mars, for example, uses plutonium-238 as its energy needs are too high for solar power alone.

Plutonium-238 can power spaceraft for decades. NASA

Such was the state of affairs that some missions had to try different methods, though. The last plutonium-238 to be produced in the U.S. was at the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina, ending in 1988. This left NASA relying on their existing stockpile, and also buying from Russia, limiting the capabilities of some space missions

NASAs Juno spacecraft, for example, which is arriving at Jupiter this year, runs solely onsolar power, in part due to the shortage of plutonium-238 during its design. This will be the furthest spacecraft from Earth ever to operate on just solar power.

ESAs Rosetta spacecraft in orbit around comet 67P Churyumov/Gerasimenko, and the Philae lander on the surface, would also have benefitted from plutonium-238. Instead, they had to remain in hibernation with their systems powered down for several years while they drifted towards the comet.

To create plutonium-238, as part of a program costing $15 milliona year, ORNL mixes neptunium-237 with aluminium, and presses the mixture into high-density pellets. The so-called High Flux Isotope Reactor at ORNL then irradiates the pellets, creating neptunium-238, which decays quickly into plutonium-238.

Shown is part of the process the lab is using. ORNL

ORNL said that NASA only had about 35 kilograms (77 pounds) left, only half of which met power specifications for spacecraft, enough for two or three more missions into the 2020s. The newly produced material can be mixed with the existing supply, giving NASA an increased capability much longer into the future, although some have suggested it may not be enough.

NASAs next mission to use plutonium-238 will be the as-yet unnamed Mars 2020 rover, which is similar in design to Curiosity. And who knows what other future missions will benefit from this new production line.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/deep-space-missions-get-boost-plutonium-238-production-restarts

NASA Saves Kepler Spacecraft After Unknown Emergency Left It Stranded

NASAs planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft has been saved from disaster after an unknown problem left it floating helplessly in space 120 million kilometers (75 million miles) from Earth.

At the end of last week, NASA announced that Kepler had gone into a fail-safe Emergency Mode (EM) due to an unknown problem with the space telescope, leaving engineers rushing to findthe source of the problem over the weekend.

“During a scheduled contact on Thursday, April 7, mission operations engineers discovered that the Kepler spacecraft was in Emergency Mode (EM),” NASA said in astatement. “EM is the lowest operational mode and is fuel intensive. Recovering from EM is the team’s priority at this time.”

But now the agency has announced that Kepler has recovered. Unfortunately,the cause of the problem is still not clear, so Kepler is not completely out of the woods yet. The spacecraft reached a stable state on Sunday morning and has since switched into a low fuel-burn mode. Scientists will investigate the spacecraft this week to try and work out what the problem was.

“The anomalous EM event is the first that the Kepler spacecraft has encountered during its seven years in space,” NASA said in its latest statement, adding that mission operations “remain vigilant”.

NASA first detected the problem towards the middle of last week, when scientists had been trying to point the spacecraft towards the middle of the Milky Way for a new round of observations.Owing to the serious nature of the issue, NASA allocated the Kepler team priority access to the Deep Space Network, the Earth-based communications network used to talk to spacecraft around the Solar System. Even using this, though, back-and-forth communication with the spacecraft took 13 minutes, owing to its distance from Earth.

Kepler 452b is the most Earth-like planet found by Kepler to date.NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Kepler was initially launched in 2009 to find planets beyond the Solar System using the transit method observing the dip in distant stars as planets passed in front. Via this method,the spacecraft has found thousands of potential exoplanets, far more than every other planet-hunting telescope combined. Understandably, then,NASA is pretty keen to keep the successful mission going, at least until its successor the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launches in 2017.

This is not the first time Kepler has encountered a bit of a setback, though. In July 2012, one of the four gyroscopic reaction wheels used to orientate the spacecraft failed, meaning scientists had to devise an ingenious solution to use pressure from solar wind to act as a makeshift fourth wheel.

Thanks to these efforts, the spacecraft was able to resume operations as part of the K2 mission in 2014, continuing to find planets beyond the Solar System. Earlier this year, 100 new planets were reported as part of this secondary mission.

And now, Kepler’s groundbreaking mission can hopefully continue.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/NASA-Kepler-spacecraft-emergency

Astronomers Determine Saturn’s Location With Astounding Accuracy

By combining signals from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft with observations from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (NRAO) very long baseline array (VLBA), scientists have been able to accurately identify Saturn’s position to within a single mile. This information will be useful in understanding the orbits of planets in the outer solar system, and will have other widespread implications for future research. The study was led by Dayton Jones of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the paper was published in The Astronomical Journal. The work was also presented this week at the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Meeting.

“This work is a great step toward tying together our understanding of the orbits of the outer planets of our solar system and those of the inner planets,” Jones said in a press release.

The VLBA is a network of ten radio antennae that span across North America, from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands. Working in concert, the array is able to resolve incredible detail across great distances. In this case, it was able to very accurately track the radio signal from the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn for the last ten years. 

Using five years’ worth of Cassini’s signaling data, the VLBA was able to resolve Saturn’s location to an area smaller than two miles, which is roughly 50-100 times more accurate than previous calculations. This greatly clarifies Saturn’s ephemeris, which is the table that states a celestial body’s predicted location at any given point in time. 

“An accurate ephemeris is one of the basic tools of astronomy, and this work is a great step toward tying together our understanding of the orbits of the outer planets and those of the inner planets,” Jones explained to the NRAO. “The orbits of the inner planets are well tied together, but those of the outer planets, including Saturn, have not been tied as well to each other or to those of the inner planets.”

By better understanding Saturn’s orbit and where it will be at a given time in relation to other objects, astronomers can take advantage of research opportunities. These include using distant light to study its rings, the better timing of experiments with pulsars, and even improving tests regarding Einstein’s theory of general relativity using quasars. The updated ephemeris will also be quite useful for better navigation of spacecrafts, and has already improved the course of Cassini’s mission to make more meaningful measurements and observations.

The researchers hope to replicate the success from this study in the future with Jupiter. The VLBA will track the radio signals from NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which is set to insert into Jupiter’s orbit in July of 2016. As Jupiter and Saturn are the two largest planets in our solar system, having accurate ephemerides for these planets will be a tremendous accomplishment and greatly improve future scientific research and spacecraft missions.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/astronomers-determine-saturn-s-location-astounding-accuracy

New Space Engine Turns CubeSats Into Interplanetary Explorers


Researchers plan to launch a tiny spacecraft to orbit Earth and beyond sometime in the next 18 months. The launch will serve as a key test of new propulsion technology that could help cut the cost of planetary exploration by a factor of 1,000.

The scientists and engineers are developing a new plasma propulsion system designed for ultrasmall CubeSats. If all goes well, they say, it may be possible to launch a life-detection mission to Jupiter’s ocean-harboring moon, Europa, or other intriguing worlds for as little as $1 million in the not-too-distant future.

“We want to enable new missions that right now cost about $1 billion, or maybe $500 million — to go, for example, explore the moons of Jupiter and Saturn,” said project leader Ben Longmier, a plasma physicist and assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

To get the ball rolling, Longmier and his team launched a crowdfunding campaign on the website Kickstarter last Thursday. They hope to raise a minimum of $200,000 by Aug. 5, which should be enough to loft the miniature thruster on its maiden space voyage.

Miniature Thruster Technology

CubeSats are cheap and tiny spacecrafts that weigh just 11 pounds (five kilograms) or so. At present, they’re generally restricted to Earth orbit, where they circle passively until their orbits decay and they die a fiery death in the planet’s atmosphere.

But the new propulsion system — which the team calls the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster, or CAT — could change all that, turning such bantam spacecrafts into interplanetary probes, Longmier and his colleagues say.

CAT is a plasma engine, generating thrust by accelerating superheated ionized gas out of a discharge chamber. The CAT thruster is powered by solar panels, and permanent magnets will guide the plasma out the back of the spacecraft.

CAT is similar in concept to the ion engine that powers NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which orbited the protoplanet Vesta for more than a year and is now on its way to study Ceres, the largest body in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Over long periods of time, such thrusters can accelerate spacecrafts to higher speeds than typical chemical rockets can achieve.

But with CAT, everything must work on the micro scale. The thruster and power systems will weigh less than 1 pound (0.5 kg), while the supply of propellant — likely either iodine or water, though many different substances could be used — will be capped at about 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg), researchers said.

Most of the CAT components have been built and tested individually, and the team is making good progress toward incorporating them into a unified whole, researchers said.

“The hurdles that exist right now are getting our newly designed thruster up and running. We think we’re about three weeks from that,” Longmier told SPACE.com. “We’re really sort of ramping up and hitting full tilt right now.”

To Earth Orbit and Beyond

The main goal of the new CAT Kickstarter campaign is to raise enough money to space-test the engine in Earth orbit. The team is planning to launch its first probe within the next 18 months, though it may be possible to get off the ground even sooner, Longmier said.

The team plans to send the maiden CAT-equipped probe out into deep space as well — not all the way to Europa or Saturn’s geyser-spewing moon, Enceladus, but far enough to demonstrate CAT’s capabilities.

“Our secondary goal is getting it out of Earth orbit and proving to the community that this thing works,” Longmier said. “If it does work, it’s a lot easier to get funding and write grants in the traditional sense.”

Raising $200,000 should make all of this possible, while meeting other funding milestones will allow the CAT team to tackle “stretch goals.” If the Kickstarter campaign nets $500,000, for example, the team will fast-track its space trip by purchasing a commercial launch, while raising $900,000 will enable a two-CubeSat “space race” to escape Earth orbit.

Longmier and his core team at the University of Michigan are working with experts at a variety of institutions, including three different NASA centers — Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

The asteroid-mining firm Planetary Resources is another partner. The billionaire-backed company, which counts Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt among its investors, is interested in possibly using CAT-equipped probes to do up-close asteroid reconnaissance on the cheap, Longmier said.

“That’s sort of where we come in — sending that small spacecraft out as a scout, a radio beacon, to go radiotag it,” he said.

Asteroid tagging is just one of many potential applications for the technology, CAT team members say. A fleet of CAT-powered CubeSats could also provide cheap global Internet access, for instance, or study the impacts of solar eruptions on Earth’s neighborhood, helping scientists better understand and predict space weather.

And then there’s the lure of mounting stripped-down, $1 million life-detection missions to Europa, Enceladus or other intriguing and farflung worlds.

“I think we have the opportunity — for the first time, more or less, in history — to go and see if we can make these detections of life within our own solar system,” Longmier said. “Not just looking at them, but going and taking sensors, doing in situ measurements, flying through the plumes of Enceladus with small spacecraft. We think we can do that in the relatively near future.”

Image courtesy of Ben Longmier, University of Michigan

This article originally published at Space.com

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/07/09/space-engine-explorers/

A Timelapse Video That’s Out of This World

In an incredible timelapse video, Gregory Reid Wiseman—an American astronaut currently living on the International Space Station (ISS) in low earth orbit—captured the release of the Cygnus spacecraft.

The Cygnus is an unmanned cargo spacecraft developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). In July of this year, the spacecraft carried supplies to the ISS astronauts, including experiment hardware, spare parts and crew provisions. The Cygnus was then reloaded with trash, released via robotic arm, and two days later burned upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere (as it was designed to do). 

The timelapse video was taken on August 15, 2014. Wiseman captioned it: #SpaceVine timelapse – @astro_alex worked the arm and I pushed the “so long” button on #Cygnus



For more vines, check out Wiseman’s amazing page: https://vine.co/u/977976778226286592

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/timelapse-video-thats-out-world

SpaceX Shows Off Its New Manned Spacecraft Hovering In Mid-Air

Were only a few weeks into 2016, but we can already see that SpaceX is going to be dominating the headlines in space exploration this year. Fresh off the back of their oh-so-close barge landing, the company has released footage of its upcoming manned spacecraft hovering in mid-air.

The Dragon 2, or Crew Dragon as its also known, will be used by SpaceX to take astronauts into space. Manned flights are scheduled to start in 2017, but before that begins, the company is going through a rigorous testing procedure.

Dragon 2 differs somewhat from other capsule-shaped spacecraft. All others, such as the historic Apollo capsule or modern Soyuz spacecraft, landed using parachutes. SpaceXs vehicle, though, has eight SuperDraco thrusters on the side that allow it to perform a powered landing. The goal is to have the capsule return to the ground from space with the accuracy of a helicopter, NASA said in a blog post, without a need for parachutes or an oceanlanding.

In thevideoof the test below, released on January 21 by the company but performedon November 24 last year, the thrusters fire for several seconds, supporting the entire weight of the unmanned test capsule, which had previously been hanging from a cable. Although short, the test proves this important capability of the spacecraft works. Much more safety testing will be needed before its ready to fly, though.

These same thrusters can be used to get the capsule to safety during a botched launch, known as a launch abort system. This capability was tested in 2015. Now, in the latest test at the companys testing facility in MacGregor, Texas, SpaceX has shown how the thrusters allow the capsule to remain stable, and gently lower itself, in mid-air.

As noted by NASA, though, propulsive landing will not be used for initial missions with NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. Instead, the early versions of Dragon 2 will splash down safely in the ocean under parachutes as its passengers return from the space station, the agency said.

And you can you expect plenty more news from SpaceX this year. Alongside continued launches of its Falcon 9 rocket, the company will be attempting more first stage landings. It is also expected to launch the larger Falcon Heavy rocket this year, and it may also reveal its plans to get humans to Mars.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/spacex-shows-its-new-manned-spacecraft-hovering-mid-air

New Horizons Begins Life After Pluto By Studying Distant Solar System Object

After the New Horizons spacecraft made its historic flyby of Pluto in July 2015, the plan was always to send it further out of the Solar System to study other objects. Now, the spacecraft has returned the first science from such observations.

New Horizons observed a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) on two separate occasions called 1994 JR1, which measures 145 kilometers (90 miles) across. KBOs are remnants of the early Solar System, in the form of icy comets and asteroids, so studying them could reveal important clues about our beginnings.

These observations werent comparable with the Pluto flyby though, when New Horizons flew just a few tens of thousands of kilometers above the surface. Instead, New Horizons snapped the KBO from a distance of 111 million kilometers (69 million miles) in early April, following preliminary observations from more than twice as far away in November 2015.

But this post-Pluto science is important, because it helps New Horizons practice for a more ambitious mission in 2019. On January 1 of that year, mission scientists will send New Horizons flying past a KBO called 2014 MU69 closer than it came to Pluto, although the exact flyby distance is not known yet.

As for JR1, well, we did actually learn a bit from these views. First, scientists were able to pinpoint its location to within 1,000 kilometers (621miles), the most accurate for any small KBO. This allowed them to rule out a theory that JR1 might be a distant satellite of Pluto. They were also able to work out JR1s rotation speed, clocking it at one rotation every 5.4 Earth hours.

Above, an animation of JR1 moving from two of 20 observations made in April 2016. Top left is an internal camera reflection, which NASA calls “a kind of selfie.”NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Thats relatively fast for a KBO, said science team member John Spencer, from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado, in a statement. This is all part of the excitement of exploring new places and seeing things never seen before.

Before New Horizons reaches 2014 MU69, it willstudy about 20 more KBOs, pending approval for this extended mission from NASA (which seems a done deal at the moment). Pluto may have been impressive, but these endeavors will tell us even more about the outer Solar System than ever before.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/new-horizons-begins-life-after-pluto

NASA’s New Horizons Readies for This Summer’s Pluto Flyby

After traveling nearly five billion kilometers over nine years, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has just entered the first phase of approach in its upcoming epic encounter with Pluto. The series of several planned approaches will culminate on July 14 with the first ever close-up flyby of Pluto—a dwarf planet 7.5 billion kilometers (4.67 billion miles) from Earth.  

New Horizons, launched into space on January 19, 2006, is the first mission to the former ninth planet. The spacecraft woke up from its final hibernation period just last month to English tenor Russell Watson’s “Where My Heart Will Take Me.” Since 2007, the piano-sized probe has spent 1,873 days (or two-thirds of its flight time) largely unpowered over the course of 18 separate hibernation periods to reduce wear and tear. 

“We’ve completed the longest journey any spacecraft has flown from Earth to reach its primary target, and we are ready to begin exploring,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern from Southwest Research Institute says in a news release

The plan is to head into the orbit of one of Pluto’s five known moons. And in preparation for this summer’s close encounter, scientists have been configuring the probe for distant observations of Pluto, including a long-range photo shoot beginning January 25 and continuing through the next few months. Images taken by the on-board Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager will help navigate the probe across the last 220 million kilometers (135 million miles).

“We need to refine our knowledge of where Pluto will be when New Horizons flies past it,” says Mark Holdridge of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “The flyby timing also has to be exact, because the computer commands that will orient the spacecraft and point the science instruments are based on precisely knowing the time we pass Pluto—which these images will help us determine.” 

This first approach phase will run until the spring, and various instruments on New Horizons will be gathering interplanetary data continuously, including measurements of high-energy particles streaming from the sun and the concentrations of dust particles in the Kuiper Belt, an unexplored area in the outer region of our solar system that could contain thousands of small icy, rocky planets.

Then in the springtime, cameras and spectrometers aboard the spacecraft will begin capturing high-resolution images that’ll help map Pluto and its moons more accurately than ever before. “We really are on Pluto’s doorstep,” Stern says.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/nasas-new-horizons-readies-summers-pluto-flyby