Space: the final frontier

Written by  //  September 15, 2017  //  Aviation & Aerospace, Science & Technology  //  No comments

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European Space Agency (ESA) Rosetta Overview
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15 September
An artist’s rendition of what Cassini’s crash into Saturn will look like. NASA/JPL-Caltech

(Quartz) Cassini’s grand finale. After a 20-year journey, the space probe will send a few last snippets of scientific data as it hurtles into Saturn—an act of altruistic suicide to avoid contaminating moons that may contain life. You can follow its final moments here.
RIP, Cassini: Historic Mission Ends with Fiery Plunge into Saturn
( Cassini’s descent into Saturn was intentional. The spacecraft was rapidly running out of fuel, after spending nearly 20 years in space, and NASA scientists decided to make use of the mission’s inevitable conclusion. By crashing into Saturn, Cassini had the opportunity to see what the planet’s upper atmosphere is made of, and that’s the data that the probe sent back to Earth during its final few moments of life. The probe took its last images of the Saturn system yesterday (Sept. 14), and transmitted those images back to Earth the same day, ahead of its plunge.
The Cassini spacecraft crashed into Saturn, ending a successful 20-year mission
It’s precisely because of its successes that Cassini had to die. Once the spacecraft ran out of fuel, NASA would not risk letting it remain aloft, where it might be knocked into Titan or Enceladus.
(WaPost) NASA scientists just received their last message from the Cassini spacecraft, which plunged into Saturn early Friday morning. Those final bits of data signal the end of one of the most successful planetary science missions in history.
“The signal from the spacecraft is gone and within the next 45 seconds so will be the spacecraft,” program manager Earl Maize reported from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, just after 4:55 a.m. local time. “This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you’re all an incredible team.”

7 May
Unmanned U.S. Air Force space plane lands after secret, two-year mission
(Reuters) The U.S. military’s experimental X-37B space plane landed on Sunday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing a classified mission that lasted nearly two years, the Air Force said.
The unmanned X-37B, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, touched down at 7:47 a.m. EDT (1147 GMT) on a runway formerly used for landings of the now-mothballed space shuttles, the Air Force said in an email.
The Boeing-built space plane blasted off in May 2015 from nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas 5 rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) and Boeing Co (BA.N).
The X-37B, one of two in the Air Force fleet, conducted unspecified experiments for more than 700 days while in orbit. It was the fourth and lengthiest mission so far for the secretive program, managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

25 February

(Quartz)  Scientists have discovered nearly 3,500 planets that circle a star other than our sun. And, yet, something about the announcement of seven new exoplanets this week seemed to have struck a chord with millions of people in ways the previous thousands did not.  … Trappist-1 is an ultra-cool dwarf star, one of the most common types of star in our galaxy. Finding Earth-like planets around one of these stars means we likely have billions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone. And with every exoplanet we discover, the probability that we’re alone in the universe goes down. But to many detractors, this sort of space research is a waste of taxpayers’ money. Knowing there are Earth-like planets some 39 light years away, a distance we’re unlikely to cross any time soon, does not in any way alleviate the many terrestrial problems we face today. That argument gets even stronger when serious money is spent on space by a country like India, which launched a successful mission to Mars, but still has hundreds of millions suffering in poverty.
It’s hard to put a number on the return on investment in space research, but experts agree that benefits far outweigh costs.

23 February

What life would be like on the seven newly discovered Earth-like planets
(Quartz) We’ve found a new solar system, and it threatens to put our own to shame. The star Trappist-1, a mere 39 light years away, has been found to host seven Earth-sized, rocky planets.
The discovery has astronomers, alien-hunters, and space enthusiasts abuzz for a good few reasons. Among new solar systems discovered so far, none have had more than seven planets (our system has eight). And none have had all seven that were rocky and also Earth-sized.
What’s more, because the star type is among the most common in our galaxy, such solar systems are likely to be quite common. That makes the Trappist-1 system a prime target to accelerate the search for life beyond our own solar system.
Even though our sun is a much larger star than Trappist-1, our planets are so far apart that their conditions range from the scorching hot world of Mercury to the bitter icy gases of Uranus. Instead, planets Trappist-1b to Trappist-1h are nestled together cosily around an “ultracool” dwarf star, and that means each likely has temperate conditions and thus possibly liquid water in some regions.
Humans have been struggling to land on Mars. Instead, if intelligent aliens live on any one of Trappist-1 planets (and you bet scientists are already searching), flying from one to another would be a quick jaunt, relatively speaking. “It’s both easy and tempting to envision a multi-world empire arising in this star system, a small federation of planets in our cosmic backyard,” writes Seth Shostak, director of the SETI Institute.
22 February
Astronomers find seven Earth-size planets where life is possible
(Reuters) Astronomers have found a nearby solar system with seven Earth-sized planets, three of which circle their parent star at the right distance for liquid surface water, bolstering the prospect of discovering extraterrestrial life, research published on Wednesday showed.
The star, known as TRAPPIST-1, is a small, dim celestial body in the constellation Aquarius. It is located about 40 light years away from Earth, close by astronomical standards, but about 44 million years away at the average cruising speed of a commercial passenger jet.
Researchers said the proximity of the system, combined with the proportionally large size of its planets compared to the small star, make it a good target for follow-up studies. They hope to scan the planets’ atmospheres for possible chemical fingerprints of life.
“The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not just a matter of if, but when,” NASA chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen said at a news conference on Wednesday.
TRAPPIST-1: How Long Would It Take to Fly to 7-Planet System?
With today’s technology, there’s no way that anyone alive right now could make it to TRAPPIST-1 in a lifetime. While discussing the new discovery at a news conference today (Feb. 22), NASA officials suggested that it would likely take at least 800,000 years to reach the TRAPPIST-1 system.
19 February
spacex-crs-10-elon-muskSpaceX had a successful and historic launch. A day after its launch was postponed with 13 seconds left on the clock, a Falcon 9 rocket took off from Kennedy Space Center at 9:38am ET on Sunday from a pad that hadn’t seen a liftoff in six years. NASA described the launch, which will deliver supplies to the International Space Station, as the beginning of a new phase of American operations in space.
4 January
Enigmatic Radio Pulses Linked to Far-Distant Galaxy
Pinpointing a source for “fast radio bursts” brings scientists one step closer to solving a cosmic mystery
(Scientific American) Astronomers have pinpointed the location of an enigmatic celestial object that spits out brief, but powerful, blasts of radio waves. Surprisingly, the source of these intermittent signals lies not in a bright galaxy but in a small, dim one, some 2.5 billion light-years from Earth.
The bursts were first spotted by the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia, and fewer than 20 have been found so far. Most were discovered in wide-field searches that cannot pinpoint exactly where they come from — which makes it harder for astronomers to winnow down possible explanations for what causes them.


14 December
Speaking of Star Wars: One way to search for extraterrestrial intelligence might be to look for alien defense shields. In a new report, two astronomers argue that advanced civilizations elsewhere in the universe could build shields against exploding stars out of objects in their solar systems—and that such shields could be detected by humans’ powerful telescopes. Meanwhile, Earth is in need of its own defenses: Scientists say the planet is unprepared for a comet collision, which, if it happened, could wipe out humans and other species. Comets move fast enough that NASA wouldn’t have time to build spacecraft after a hazardous one was detected—which is why some researchers have a plan to build comet-destroying spacecraft in advance.
21 October
(Quartz) Russia is one of two nations (the other is China) currently capable of putting humans into space, and at that job it’s been spectacularly reliable. Without Russia’s Soyuz rockets, there would be no US astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). But on other fronts the once mighty Russian (previously Soviet) space program has floundered. Its last successful interplanetary mission was to Venus in 1984. With Mars, it’s had a string of almost unmitigated failures since its first attempted flyby in 1960.
At its height, Soviet spending on space rivaled America’s (pdf, p. 5). But now Roscosmos’s budget for the coming decade is equal to NASA’s for a single year. The $7.5 billion Vostochny Cosmodrome—a new launch site intended to restore Roscosmos’s glory—has been hit with spiraling costs, delays, strikes, and even admissions of embezzlement. Russia has also had to delay an ambitious new moon program, which includes building a lunar complex and orbital station. Worse still, Roscomos’s lucrative contracts to send NASA astronauts to the ISS may not continue beyond 2017, when SpaceX or Boeing start human launches.
So ExoMars matters a lot to Roscosmos. The mission’s next phase involves sending a rover to Mars in 2021. ESA is to build the rover while Roscosmos is to redesign the failed landing gear based on the data gathered this week. If that mission fails too, it’ll wound ESA’s pride, but it could ruin Russia’s.—Akshat Rathi
20 October
Crash landing feared as Europe’s Mars lander still silent
(CBC) Unclear if Schiaparelli probe touched down as planned, or crashed into Red Planet
(QUARTZ)  The European Space Agency lost contact with its Mars lander. The Schiaparelli craft, designed to test new landing equipment, went ominously silent after its descent to the planet’s surface. On the bright side, the agency’s TGO satellite achieved the correct orbit, and will search the atmosphere for the chemical signatures of life.
13 October
Updates from ESA’s space operations centre as the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter approaches and enters orbit around the Red Planet, and the Schiaparelli module lands on its surface
Updates on this page will cover the following expected milestones:
14 October: TGO final trajectory manoeuvre (08:45 GMT)
16 October: Separation of Schiaparelli from TGO at 14:42 GMT / 16:42 CEST
17 October: TGO orbit-raising manoeuvre at 02:42 GMT / 04:42 CEST
19 October: TGO Mars orbit insertion and Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing on Mars (atmospheric entry expected 14:42 GMT / 16:42 CEST, landing 14:48 GMT / 16:48 CEST)
20 October: Update on Schiaparelli status; descent images expected
21+ October: Schiaparelli status reports until end of mission
Note: Times shown above are actual event times at Mars; the one-way signal travel time between Earth and Mars is currently just under 10 minutes.
What is ExoMars?
(ESA) The ExoMars programme is a joint endeavour between ESA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.
The primary goal of the ExoMars programme is to address the question of whether life has ever existed on Mars. This relates to its name, with the ‘exo’ referring to the study of exobiology – the possible existence of life beyond Earth (sometimes also referred to as astrobiology).
The programme comprises two missions. The first will be launched in March 2016 and consists of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli, an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module. The second is planned for launch in 2020 and comprises a rover and surface science platform.
30 September
rosetta-2Mission complete
ESA’s historic Rosetta mission has concluded as planned, with the controlled impact onto the comet it had been investigating for more than two years.
Confirmation of the end of the mission arrived at ESA’s control centre in Darmstadt, Germany at 11:19 GMT (13:19 CEST) with the loss of Rosetta’s signal upon impact.
Rosetta carried out its final manoeuvre last night at 20:50 GMT (22:50 CEST), setting it on a collision course with the comet from an altitude of about 19 km. Rosetta had targeted a region on the small lobe of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, close to a region of active pits in the Ma’at region.
“Thanks to a huge international, decades-long endeavour, we have achieved our mission to take a world-class science laboratory to a comet to study its evolution over time, something that no other comet-chasing mission has attempted,” notes Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science.
Rosetta Mission Ends With Spacecraft’s Dive Into Comet with video
(NYT) Rosetta, the first spacecraft to orbit a comet, is dead, setting down in a final embrace with its companion of the past two years.
Radio signals from Rosetta flatlined at 7:19 a.m. Eastern after it did a soft belly-flop onto Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at a speed of two miles per hour, slower than the average walk.
For the last few minutes, people at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, watched their computer screens mostly in silence, but with some nervous chatter. When the radio signals ceased, they applauded and hugged in a celebration that was part joyous, part somber.
5 September
Rosetta finally finds Philae lander’s dark hiding place on a distant comet
The European Space Agency’s orbiter has been searching for months for its lost robotic buddy and can now prepare for an eternal reunion at the end of September.
(CNET) After nearly two years hidden in limbo on a comet racing around the sun, the European Space Agency’s Philae lander has finally been found, and just in the nick of time as the search window for the Rosetta spacecraft traveling alongside Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko will soon close.
If you’re not a space nut, you probably haven’t heard all these names since late 2014 when Rosetta rendezvoused with the comet and deployed Philae to its surface for a closer look. The mission went well at first, until Philae touched down on the comet, bounced and landed in a dark crevasse where it was unable to receive enough solar power to charge its batteries.
Once its batteries were depleted after a couple days, Philae was essentially lost. The lander briefly awoke for a moment last year when the comet traveled closer to the sun, but then all went dark again. In July of this year the mission crew finally gave up all hope of re-establishing communication with the wayward Philae.
4 September
SpaceX’s Explosion Reverberates Across Space, Satellite and Telecom Industries
(NYT) The explosion of a SpaceX rocket last Thursday will have an impact across the space industry, far beyond the losses on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
An Israeli satellite operator’s deal to sell itself to a Chinese company is imperiled. Planned launches of communications satellites that support international mobile phone service and digital television are delayed and put in doubt. NASA’s cargo deliveries to the International Space Station will probably be disrupted.
All of them are customers of the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX. The private space launch company, led by the entrepreneur Elon Musk, has a generally solid safety record.
But last week’s setback and a failed launch last year, when its rocket carrying a NASA cargo fell apart in flight, are raising questions about SpaceX, a company that has risen rapidly by offering lower costs and promising accelerated launch schedules.
2 September
SpaceX rocket explosion: Mark Zuckerberg laments loss of satellite
Writing on his Facebook page, Zuckerberg said: “As I’m here in Africa, I’m deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.”
The accidental explosion of the Falcon 9 rocket early on Thursday morning – referred to as an “anomaly” by SpaceX engineers – destroyed both the rocket and its cargo: the AMOS-6 satellite, which Facebook had planned to deploy to provide internet coverage to parts of Africa.
1 September
A rocket SpaceX was testing exploded on a launch pad in Florida
(Business Insider) SpaceX was testing a Falcon 9 rocket at a Cape Canaveral launch pad when it was rocked by powerful explosions.
SpaceX was scheduled to do a static test-fire of a 229-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket with no crew aboard it on Thursday morning, when it exploded shortly after 9 a.m. EDT on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, the company said. (A “static fire” is when they test-fire the rocket’s engines without actually launching it into the air.
24 August
Discovery of potentially Earth-like planet Proxima b raises hopes for life
Thought to be at least 1.3 times mass of Earth, planet lies within ‘habitable’ zone of Proxima Centauri, raising hopes for life outside our solar system
The search for life outside our solar system has been brought to our cosmic doorstep with the discovery of an apparently rocky planet orbiting the nearest star to our sun.
Thought to be at least 1.3 times the mass of the Earth, the planet lies within the so-called “habitable zone” of the star Proxima Centauri, meaning that liquid water could potentially exist on the newly discovered world.
Named Proxima b, the new planet has sparked a flurry of excitement among astrophysicists, with the tantalising possibility that it might be similar in crucial respects to Earth.
13 – 15 August
New Yorker R2D2The New Yorker Sent Star Wars Actor Kenny Baker Off Right
(Popular Science) Cartoon remembers the R2-D2 actor, hits us where it hurts
Oh man, it’s a good thing droids can’t cry because we’d have a lot of rusty sensors out there right now.
Star Wars: 15 Facts You Didn’t Know About R2-D2
R2-D2 is the unsung hero of the Star Wars franchise; the little droid has fought alongside multiple generations of Skywalkers, and has been an integral part of the Galactic Senate’s fight in the Clone Wars and later the Rebel Alliance’s fight for freedom. Stubborn, loyal, and resourceful, R2-D2 (or Artoo) is always there to save the day and his friends (especially C-3PO – okay, mostly Threepio). It turns out, though, that the droid at the heart of the Star Wars story has some surprises.
Kenny Baker, actor behind R2-D2, dies
The 3ft 8in actor, who starred in six Star Wars films as well as Time Bandits and Flash Gordon, was 81
He went on to play the character in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as the three Star Wars prequels from 1999 to 2005. He also appeared in a number of other much loved films in the 1980s, including The Elephant Man, Time Bandits and Flash Gordon.
12 August
European Space Agency targets Mars for October landing of Schiaparelli module
ESA plans to build on the legacy of British Mars lander Beagle 2 by placing the Schiaparelli module on the Red Planet in October
The region has been well studied from orbit and shows good evidence of once having been covered in water. There are clay sediments and sulphates that were likely formed in the presence of water, and a number of water-carved channels.
Although Schiaparelli is designed primarily to test entry, descent and landing, it does carry a number of scientific sensors. It will essentially be a martian weather station, designed to return key information about what initiates the dust storms that engulf the planet every martian spring.
Launched on 14 March 2016, it will enter Martian orbit in October and begin a comprehensive study of the planet’s atmosphere that will last until at least 2022.
23 July

This image shows our neighbouring planet Mars, as it was observed shortly before opposition in 2016 by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Some prominent features on the surface of the planet have been annotated.

This image shows our neighbouring planet Mars, as it was observed shortly before opposition in 2016 by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Some prominent features on the surface of the planet have been annotated.

Forty years of missions to Mars

Four decades after Nasa’s Viking 1 landed on the red planet, we detail every Mars mission to date – successful or not
(The Guardian) Getting to Mars still isn’t easy. In the 40 years since the successful Nasa mission, there have been 18 attempts to reach the planet (excluding a joint European Space Agency (ESA)/Russian mission, which is currently en route).
Of those 18 missions, just half were fully successful. All but one of them were launched by the US, the exception being India’s successful Mars Orbiter mission, which arrived in September 2014 and continues to operate.
Two other missions achieved partial success. The USSR’s Phobos 2 mission, launched in 1988, successfully achieved orbit, although its lander and hopper failed to reach Phobos, one of the planet’s two moons.
The ESA’s Mars Express, which achieved orbit in 2003, has imaged 95% of the surface of the planet and taken various measurements, hugely expanding our knowledge. The mission successfully carried and released the UK-built Beagle 2, but nothing was heard from the lander after it touched down. The ESA declared the lander lost in 2004. However, in 2015, it was spotted in images taken by a NASA orbiter.
Hubble Telescope Captures Incredible Up-Close View of Mars (19 May)
16 May
Meet David Saint-Jacques, the next Canadian headed to space
Quebec City native recalls being amazed by night sky as a young boy
(CBC) Born in Quebec City and raised in St-Lambert on Montreal’s South Shore, Saint-Jacques has a background in engineering, astrophysics and medicine.
During his studies, he completed:
a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Cambridge University.
an M.D. from Université Laval in Quebec City.
family medicine residency at McGill University.
As well, Saint-Jacques, who is married and has two children, is fluent in English and French and can also speak Russian, Spanish and Japanese, according to his Canadian Space Agency profile.
He is also a lifelong mountaineer, cyclist, skier and avid sailor, and holds a commercial pilot licence and advanced scuba-diving licence.
Meet Canadian Astronaut David Saint-Jacques
(Canadian Space Agency) As a kid, David Saint-Jacques travelled the world with his family, fostering his spirit of exploration, openness, curiosity and caring for others. An engineer and strophysicist, David later became a family physician and practiced medicine in the Canadian Arctic.
On May 13, 2009, he was recruited by the Canadian Space Agency as one of two new astronauts after a year-long process. Get to know David better with this video profile produced on the occasion of the 5th anniversary of his recruitment.
11 March
Astronaut Scott Kelly to Retire from NASA in April
NASA astronaut and one-year crew member Scott Kelly will retire from the agency, effective April 1. Kelly joined the astronaut corps in 1996 and currently holds the American record for most time spent in space. After retiring, Kelly will continue to participate in the ongoing research related to his one-year mission. He will provide periodic medical samples and support other testing in much the same way that his twin brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly, made himself available for NASA’s Twins Study during his brother’s mission.
NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly Returns to Earth after One-Year Mission
After spending 340 consecutive days in space, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is back on Earth. Kelly landed safely in Kazakhstan at 11:26 p.m. ET on March 1, 2016.

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