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Cassini’s historic dip into the ocean of Enceladus

31 Oct

On October 28, 2015 Cassini passed below (above?) the south pole of Enceladus at an altitude of 49 kilometers. The probe was flown here in order to get a taste of the water-ice particles that are streaming out into space from Enceladus’ suspected sub-surface ocean in this location. This is the lowest pass Cassini has made through the alien ocean geyser.

This was done in order to help scientists understand the nature of the ocean, how close to the surface it might be, and if the water contained in it could accommodate life. Also of particular interest, the Cassini team is looking for a particular chemical signature of hydrogen that could support the theory that Enceladus has hydro-thermal vents heating water deep in the moon’s ocean.

Related reading: Water, water everywhere!

It’s important to note, however, the instruments Cassini carries on board can characterize the chemical composition of any particles it encounters, but it doesn’t have the ability to directly test for life.

The detailed analysis of the tiny water droplets that Cassini caught as it flew through the plume is now underway (with full results a few weeks away), but some images of the fly-by have already been sent back. And as we’ve come to expect from Cassini, they’re spectacular.

The south polar region of Saturn's active, icy moon Enceladus awaits NASA's Cassini spacecraft in this view, acquired on approach to the mission's deepest-ever dive through the moon's plume of icy spray. The wavy boundary of the moon's south polar region is visible at bottom, where it disappears into wintry darkness. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The south polar region of Saturn’s active, icy moon Enceladus awaits NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in this view, acquired on approach to the mission’s deepest-ever dive through the moon’s plume of icy spray. The wavy boundary of the moon’s south polar region is visible at bottom, where it disappears into wintry darkness. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A RAW and unprocessed image from Cassini as it flew towards the icy plume at Enceladus' south pole. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A RAW and unprocessed image from Cassini as it flew towards the icy plume at Enceladus’ south pole. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

During its closest ever dive past the active south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus, NASA's Cassini spacecraft quickly shuttered its imaging cameras to capture glimpses of the fast moving terrain below. This view has been processed to remove slight smearing present in the original, unprocessed image that was caused by the spacecraft's fast motion. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

During its closest ever dive past the active south polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft quickly shuttered its imaging cameras to capture glimpses of the fast moving terrain below. This view has been processed to remove slight smearing present in the original, unprocessed image that was caused by the spacecraft’s fast motion. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Following a successful close flyby of Enceladus, NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured this artful composition of the icy moon with Saturn's rings beyond. This view looks towards the trailing/anti-Saturn side of Enceladus. North is up. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Oct. 28, 2015. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 171,000 km from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 141 degrees. Image scale is 10 km per pixel. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Following a successful close flyby of Enceladus, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured this artful composition of the icy moon with Saturn’s rings beyond. This view looks towards the trailing/anti-Saturn side of Enceladus. North is up. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Oct. 28, 2015. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 171,000 km from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 141 degrees. Image scale is 10 km per pixel. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Dead comet / skull / asteroid / spooky Halloween fly-by

31 Oct

Whatever you call it, Asteroid 2015 TB145 was discovered only three weeks ago – on October 10, 2015 by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS-1.

It is just over half a kilometer in diameter (600 meters) and made its closest approach to Earth today at 1 p.m. EDT. It’s distance to Earth at its closest point was 486,000 km – or about 1.3 times distance from the Earth to the Moon.

Fittingly, since today is Halloween, if you rotate the images just right the comet/asteroid does sort of look like a skull. Spooky.

The above images were created by NASA using radar data from the 305 meter Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. The images were captured October 30, 2015.

Astronomers have determined, primarily by examining the amount of light the object reflects, that it is likely a dead comet. That is to say it’s a comet, but over the eons it has lost its volatile materials, and so is now reasonably dark and doesn’t produce the typical sign of a comet: a tail. This is why it was initially thought to be (and named) an Asteroid.

In any event, observatories around the world are pointed at it to learn everything we can about it’s composition and orbit. It also underscores the need to keep an eye on the sky, since this is a big piece of rock, reasonably nearby in the grand scheme, and we only found it three weeks ago.

Space gets a little more Canadian

2 Jun

Here’s a great announcement. One that “confirms a great future for Canada in space for years to come,” in the words of Canadian Industry Minister James Moore.


I chatted with Jerry Agar on NewsTalk1010 about the news

Today it was announced that Canadian Astronaut Jeremy Hansen, along with fellow Canadian astronaut David St. Jacques, will have the opportunity to fly to and work on the ISS within the next decade as part of the Government of Canada extending funding to the ISS all the way to 2024. One of the flights will be before 2019 and the second prior to 2024. Who flies when will be determined in collaboration with ISS partners in the months ahead.

The Canadian funding will be in the neighbourhood of $350 million total, which is in line with current funding for the Canadian Space Agency’s ISS operations of about $83 million per year.

This money funds operations at the Canadian Space Agency, astronaut training, cost of launch, supplies and scientific equipment to operate the ISS, public outreach, and more.

Canada is also the third country to commit funding to continue ISS operations up to 2024 (following the USA and Russia) – extending it from the originally planned 2020. With the three largest ISS partners now committed, the next decade of ISS operations is likely secure. I also speculate that other nations will join the 2024 extension as there are currently 14 nations working together to operate the ISS, committed up to 2020.

It is also interesting to consider this: by 2017 NASA will again have its own ability to launch people into space, ending reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft ever since the Space Shuttle stopped flying in 2011. This means that David and Jeremy could be the first Canadians to fly either the SpaceX Dragon V2 capsule or the Boeing CST-100 capsule, which are both currently under construction. It is also possible they’ll still launch on the Soyuz, but considering the projected budget advantages of the two new US-designed spacecraft, I’d imagine the Canadian Space Agency will go that route.

It’s also possible that Jeremy, as a CF-18 pilot prior to becoming an astronaut, could be assigned to a crew as the pilot for a future mission.

David was a medical doctor prior to becoming an astronaut – and medical experiments are a high priority for ISS research – so I expect he would be a very welcome addition to any crew as well.

Of course what or when their missions will be is speculative, but it is exciting to consider the possibilities.

The announcement today also included renewed funding for MDA to maintain the Canadarm2 and DEXTRE robots currently in operation on the ISS. (Read more about Canadian space robotics here.) Additionally, four new Canadian science experiments will be flying to the ISS this fall. And the Government of Canada will invest nearly $2 million to continue the work being done on Mars by the Canadian X-Ray Spectrometer on the Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity Rover.

That’s all very exciting!

The work in space continues to inspire and improve life on Earth every day. This is a great forward-looking investment in science and the economy. I’ve written at length about the importance of investing in space before, here and here for example.

I’ve also had the opportunity to talk with Jeremy a few times, and David a couple times as well — each time they have been generous, open, and encouraging. I couldn’t be happier for their opportunity that awaits!

On one such occasion in May 2013 on the eve of Chris Hadfield’s return to Earth from the International Space Station, Ryan Marciniak, Paul Delaney, and I chatted with astronaut Jeremy Hansen on an episode of York Universe. He offered insight on what a visit to the ISS would be like, romanticize about one day maybe walking on the Moon or Mars, the rigours of training, and wise words for any young person contemplating their future – either as an astronaut or otherwise.

It’s also fascinating to hear Jeremy talk about the chance to “one day” be assigned to a flight — knowing that now today we’re taking one big step closer to that becoming a reality.




And for a little bit of a different look on Canada’s astronauts – namely having fun running around Toronto last year – here is the video from the Amazing Canadian Space Race, featuring Canadian Astronauts Jeremy Hansen and David St. Jacques in September 2014:

ISS Progress 59 cargo resupply ship burns up

28 Apr


Final mission status and updates:

• Updated: May 8, 2015 @ 11:30 a.m. EDT (15:30 UTC).
• Tracking data from USSTRATCOM indicates Progress 59 burnt up May 8, 2015 at 2:20 a.m. UTC, +/- 1 minute.
• Progress entered the atmosphere off the west coast of southern Chile at a distance of 1,300 to 350 km.
• It is possible some pieces of debris survived re-entry, and could have landed anywhere from hundreds of kilometers off the west coast of Chile, to hundreds of kilometers off the east coast (meaning some could have fallen on land).
• At time of this writing, there are no reports of re-entry being sighted nor any debris being located.
• The Progress’ Soyuz rocket launched April 28 on schedule with the unmanned cargo ship carrying 2,357 kg of cargo to the International Space Station.
• About nine minutes after launch, as Progress separated from the Soyuz, the cargo ship failed to activate and communicate with the ground as expected.
• Data from Progress showed the fuel system did not pressurized and multiple telemetry sensors required for ISS docking failed.
• Video downloaded from Progress showed the spacecraft in a spin.
• Tracking data showed nearly 50 pieces of spacecraft debris in the vicinity of Progress while in orbit, though the precise nature of the debris is unknown (it could have been debris from the upper stage of the rocket or Progress itself).
• The six crew on board the ISS are in no danger as a result of the lost cargo delivery; they have ample supplies on board for many months.
• The next two cargo deliveries to the ISS are set for June (SpaceX Dragon, CRS-7) and August (JAXA, HTV-5).
• The investigation into this incident is currently focusing on the third stage of the Soyuz rocket.

Map showing the location of Progress' decay position, according to USSTRATCOM, as well as the Russian Federal Space Agency (note Roscosmos appears to have misjudged re-entry by about 15 minutes early). Image Credit: Spaceflight101

Map showing the location of Progress’ decay position according to USSTRATCOM as well as the Russian Federal Space Agency (note Roscosmos appears to have misjudged re-entry by about 15 minutes early). Image Credit: Spaceflight101

The launch of Progress 59 (M-27M) went off smoothly at 07:09:50 UTC on April 28 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The unmanned Progress resupply ship was atop an upgraded Soyuz 2-1A rocket, the second ISS resupply flight to make use of the upgraded rocket (the older version, the Soyuz U, had been in service since 1973). Progress 59 was being launched on an express, four hour flight to the ISS, with a fallback two day rendezvous option.

Eight minutes, 48 seconds after launch with Progress reaching its preliminary orbit, it separated from the third stage of the Soyuz rocket. It is now believed that trouble began around this time.

After separation, Progress was designed to deploy navigational antennas, collect flight telemetry, and pressurize the propulsion system manifolds. As ground controllers struggled to maintain contact with Progress, it appeared that systems were not functioning correctly on board the spacecraft.

On subsequent passes within range of ground communication stations, Russian controllers attempted to send commands to spacecraft and download data. Progress has refused commands from the ground and has been unable to provide much useful telemetry data, though it did downlink television video data successfully Tuesday morning and supply data showing that multiple telemetry sensors have failed. The fact that the command/telemetry system and the TV system uses different downlink paths has been suggested as the reason that one system is able to function while the other does not.

The downloaded TV video showed the spacecraft in a 60° per second spin, or tumble. Causes for this could be a stuck thruster, separation from the Soyuz not being clean, or possibly a system leak.

Tracking data also reported that Progress was in an orbit that is more elliptical than intended (data showed the orbit to be 193.8 by 278.6 km, versus the intended 193 by 238 km orbit). This suggests the Soyuz rocket may have slightly over-performed, though does not immediately account for the Progress’ failures. However, it has been speculated an improper shutdown of the Soyuz third stage engine prior to Progress separation may be the culprit.

More recent tracking data also indicates there is debris present in the vicinity of Progress, bolstering the possibility that the Progress/Soyuz separation was botched. It is unknown though whether the debris is from Progress or the third stage of the Soyuz rocket body.


Related:
Taking spaceflight for granted
Watch NASA TV live


Despite the best efforts of mission controllers in Moscow and Houston, they were unable to salvage Progress 59 and the craft re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere uncontrolled on May 8, 2015 at 2:20 a.m. UTC, plus or minus one minute according to US military tracking. Based on this time frame, the re-entry took place off the west coast of southern Chile.

If the re-entry took place at the earliest part of the window (2:19 a.m.), Progress would have been 1,300 km off the coast. If decay occurred at the end of the window (2:21 a.m.) Progress would have been 350 km west of Chile.

Even though re-entry was uncontrolled, there was little danger to anyone on the ground. The Progress vehicles are designed to be disposable and burn up upon re-entry. Still, it is possible that some of the heavy and dense parts of the spacecraft could have survived – namely the docking ring and propellant tanks. Any debris that did survive re-entry could be scattered from several hundred kilometers off the west coast of Chile to severl hundred kilometers off the east coast – nearly to the Falkland Islands. This area also includes land in southern South America.

At this time, there are no reports of anyone witnessing the fiery re-entry or finding any debris on land. It’s very unlikely that any debris that landed in water would be found.


A pass of Progress 59 captured from the ground in Buenos Aires a couple hours prior to re-entry.

It is also important to note that the six crew currently on board the ISS are in no danger. The crew has ample supplies on board the station to survive productively for many months. However it should be expected that the cargo manifests for two upcoming ISS cargo flights will be adjusted to make up for higher priority cargo lost on this flight.

The next scheduled cargo flight to the ISS is a SpaceX Dragon capsule. It’s currently scheduled to launch on June 19, 2015 from Florida on mission CRS-7. Following CRS-7, a Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) HTV cargo ship is set to launch in August on mission HTV-5. There is also presently a Dragon docked with the ISS as mission CRS-6; it will depart the station and land back on Earth in mid-May.

Of concern for future flights, including manned launches, is the commonality between the Progress launch vehicle and the rocket used to launch Soyuz TMA capsules – which carry crew to the ISS. If there has been a problem with the common Soyuz upper stages, that problem would have to be addressed prior to use on future missions. Problems with the Soyuz third stage are currently being investigated as the cause of the Progress 59 failure.


Skip ahead to 10:50 mark for launch.

Read more on Spaceflight 101