Goodbye, Cassini

Cassini in Saturn’s Orbit (Credit: NASA)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was only 15 years old when I saw the announcement for NASA’s upcoming exploratory mission to Saturn.  At that moment in my life I had solidified my interest (sorry, “obsession”) with spaceflight. The brief article burned in my mind with NASA’s bold assertion: this new space probe would be exploring the planet Saturn from orbit.  Saturn! No country had yet sent a spacecraft to study specifically the ringed gas giant.

On Friday, September 15th of this year, Cassini will descend into Saturn’s atmosphere after nearly 13 years in orbit.  The spacecraft was lunched in 1997 and entered orbit around Saturn in 2004.  Take a moment to think about everything that you’ve experienced for the last thirteen years.  For the entirety of that period, planetary scientists from around the world have been working to study the data returned from this far-flung space probe.

Saturn, as seen by Cassini, 2007 (Caltech/JPL)

The spacecraft (which is nearly as large as a bus and is powered by a nuclear radioisotope thermoelectric  generator) has shown to us visions of a world alien to our senses.  Photographs taken by the Cassini orbiter have allowed us to see things we are incapable of viewing from earth such as the hexagonal jets streams turning about Saturn’s poles or the faintest of the rings that encircle the planet. A magnetometer onboard has measured the first record of the planet’s magnetic field. Orbits that passed the famous ring structure made it possible to determine the nature of the matter that forms them. And imagery returned of the diminutive moon Enceladus has shown what appear to be geysers of water erupting from its surface. (The tiny world was thought to be of too little mass to feature active geothermal processes).

One of the most impactful elements of the mission was the inclusion of a lander probe, know as Huygens (Named for Christiaan Huygens.)  The lander detached from the main spacecraft and entered the atmosphere of the moon Titan in 2004.  Never before had humans seen what existed below the clouds that masked the surface of the largest moon in our solar system.

Everything we know about the chemistry, atmospheric makeup, geography, and geology of Titan comes from data collected by instruments on Huygens and Cassini. Here is an entire world, alien to us, yet close enough to be similar.  We can see in images like the one above that Titan has hills and shorelines and most of it was formed by chemicals other than water. Instead, we know through Cassini that Titan experiences a hydrologic cycle that is made up of ethane, methane, and hydrocarbon rich nitrogen.

The longevity and audacity of the Cassini mission has, and will continue to have an impact on NASA and its affiliate s for decades to come.  Unlike the Voyager and Mariner missions of the 1970s, Cassini did more than a dramatic flyby of Saturn -it persisted.  The mission not only demonstrated the technological capability of deploying a separate lander, but of the extensions to the original mission profile and flexibility to change targets.  In an increasingly risk-averse aerospace culture, the Cassini team proved that bold goals can still achieve results.

There’s a certain sadness than comes naturally at the end of a space mission.  Years of labor and study come to a close, and in many cases, the actual hardware is lost to the cosmos forever.  Additionally, trends in both science funding and politics have curtailed further proposals to study Saturn and its moons.  For those who’ve dedicated their lives to the study of the outer planets, this week could be the last an American spacecraft visits Saturn in their lifetimes.  It’s justified to feel bittersweet about the successes Cassini/Huygens accomplished when political changes suggest there will be no successor.

But there is hope: Every decade, the U.S. National Research Council meets and publishes a document known as the  Planetary Decadal Survey . Participating scientists make suggestions, balance cost versus scientific return, and prioritize potential future exploratory planetary missions. the last decadal survey was conducted in 2011 and the report was published a year later.  In the 2011 survey, strong emphasis addressed the lack of knowledge concerning Europa, one of Jupiter’s icy moons.   This had impact on NASA’s decision to approve a planned orbiter probe, now known as Europa Clipper.

Saturn and it’s moons were not left out; in fact, there were seven distinct mission concepts featuring the ringed-gas giant in the 2011 survey. Listed, they are: Titan Saturn System Mission,
Saturn Atmospheric Entry Probe Trade Study, Saturn Atmospheric Entry Probe Mission Concept Study, Saturn Ring Observer Concept Study, Enceladus Flyby & Sample Return Concept Studies,
Enceladus Orbiter Concept Study, and Titan Lake Probe Concept Study. While none of these mission concepts received the priority or impetus of Europa or Mars, if offers a glimmer of hope for the researchers who wish tone day delve deeper into the study of Saturn.

For now we will have to remain satisfied with the years of data Cassini/Huygens delivered.  In days, the spacecraft will descend into Saturn itself, heated by the friction of the planet’s atmosphere.  What remains will be pulled deep into the gaseous abyss, eventually crushed by the immense gravity.  A mission is complete. Goodbye, Cassini.

For more information about Cassini and the Grand Finale, click the link below:

https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/

“My God Bones, what have I done?”

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HERA X: Looking for Public Outreach support

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In my effort to share the story of human spaceflight (Including the various federal and commercial programs as well as my own endeavors), I would like to find ways to share my upcoming participation in NASA’s HERA analog study.

If you would like to follow the details of the simulated mission, the crew and I will be posting on Twitter to this account: @HERA_Crew_X

From April 19th through May 2nd, the other crew members and I will be training on the Johnson Space Center campus in Houston, Texas.  Each of us will be assigned a role on the crew.  Two of the selected participants will train as Mission Specialists, another will play the role of Flight Engineer, and one will be responsible as Mission Commander. During training, we will learn the tasks associated with our respective roles.

I will continue to post to this blog until the start of the mission study, and follow up afterward with more after the flight profile is completed.

If you have a webpage, write a blog, host a space/science/STEM social media account (or know someone who does) and would like to know more about the HERA X mission, feel free to contact me and I will do my best to answer your questions.  I would love to share this experience with a wider audience.

caseystedman@hotmail.com

 

 

HERA Crew 10 Mission Patch

HERA Crew 10 Patch (Design by Oscar Mathews)

HERA Crew 10 Patch (Design by Oscar Mathews)

As with every mission that preceded it, Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) mission 10 will have its own unique patch.  It will be worn by the 4 crew members, adorn equipment and apparel, and one day hang alongside the previous mission’s symbols on a wall at Johnson Space Center.

The patch design reflects the various aspects of the HERA campaign. This particular missions simulation is C3M2- or, “campaign three, mission two”.  Counting the total number of HERA crews that have used the analog habitat module, ours will be number ten.  Hence the big Roman numeral “X”.  The X has another significance this particular study will take place during the 50th anniversary of Gemini 10, which also used the large Roman numeral 10 in the mission patch design.

Each of the crew members names appear, as do 4 stars representing the number of crew.  Occupying the foreground is the asteroid Geographos, an actual asteroid found near Earth, one that actually crosses our planet’s orbit, and the simulated target for this mission. (Conveniently closer than the asteroids found orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt).  Earth is to the right, eclipsed behind the asteroid representing both the origin and final destination of the spaceflight. Mars is there too- always in the background, on the horizon of all NASA’s human spaceflight projects.

Finally, you can see our spacecraft or a representation of what a craft might look like if one were to attempt a human mission to a nearby asteroid.  The design we chose to use was NASA’s “Nautilus X“, a conceptual deep-space craft for beyond Earth orbit  (BEO) exploration.  Although such a vehicle is likely decades away from actually transporting astronauts anywhere, it follows the existing engineering principles necessary for such a journey.

I’m really looking forward to wearing this patch on my uniform!

I Return to (Simulated) Space

Photo Credit: Ron Garon

Photo Credit: Ron Franco

Continuing my goals of playing a role in human spaceflight, I recently applied to and was accepted as a participant in the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) campaign.

HERA is a “high-fidelity research venue for scientists to use in addressing risks and gaps associated with human performance during spaceflight.” (according to NASA’s website.) It is a project operated by NASA’s Human Research Program, or HRP, located at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Like my experience in the HI-SEAS analog (You can read my post about that HERE), I will be serving as a subject for NASA’s investigation into mitigating the risks of future space missions.  As a “stand-in” for an astronaut, I will be simulating the duties and tasks necessary to conduct a long-duration spaceflight.  Whereas in HI-SEAS the mission was one of Martian exploration, this time I will be simulating the launch and flight to a nearby asteroid.

After a several decades of learning to live and operate in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) using the Skylab, Space Shuttle, and International Space Station, NASA is beginning to plan for deep space exploration missions again.  There are a number of mission concepts and targets proposed, with all choices eventually leading up to human landings on the planet Mars.  But before a rocket carrying astronauts can reach the red planet a number of milestones need to met.

Graphic courtesy of NASA

Graphic courtesy of NASA

One of the precursor missions being developed is rendezvous and exploration of an asteroid.  Either by direct observation and sampling, or retrieval and sampling from a safer lunar orbit, it promises to be one of the most ambitious human spaceflight missions ever undertaken.  Such a mission would provide NASA an operational test of the techniques and technologies required for the much riskier Martian exploration flights, just as Gemini preceded the Apollo Lunar missions.  (For more about the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission, check out NASA’s page)

The HERA study profile will be that of a human spaceflight mission from launch to recovery, featuring a rendezvous and virtual EVAs to collect samples from the target asteroid.  To do this, myself and three other crew members will train for and conduct a 30 day simulation.  This will provide the HRP researchers with an opportunity to record and evaluate our ability to complete all of the duties required of astronauts during that period.

Astronauts collecting samples from an asteroid Credit: NASA

Astronauts collecting samples from an asteroid
Credit: NASA

Similar to HI-SEAS, I will be the subject of a multitude of human factors experiments.  Participating institutions will incorporate ways to evaluate our physical and mental health, our cognitive skills, problem solving, time management, nutritional balance, and team building.  Feedback from surveys (and video cameras placed throughout the HERA hab structure) will be the primary methods of collecting the data from the crew/subjects.

The HERA project us centered around a versatile habitat module structure that has been used in several NASA programs.   Initially devised as an engineering test article, the 3 story structure was known as the “Deep Space Habitat” or DSH.  As a generic design not specific to any particular mission, it has been used as a static and mobile research platform.  In 2011, the whole unit was trucked to Arizona and assembled to take part in the Desert RATS (Desert Research and Technology Studies) analog.  Today the DSH serves as the core module of the HERA project and is located on the campus of Johnson Space Center.

HERA DSH Module (NASA)

HERA DSH Module (NASA)

As you can see in the diagram above, it is not a large living space. The interior is designed to reflect the cylindrical shape of space structures launched from Earth (as each component of ISS was).  It features a laboratory, storage, crew quarters, galley, and fitness equipment.  Attached to the main DSH are hygiene and airlock modules. Windows are replaced with video screens that will play vistas appropriate for each phase of the mission profile. (The depiction above doesn’t show the 2nd or 3rd stories, in what is known as the “Badger X-ploration Loft). Like a real spacecraft, there is no unnecessary space.  Astronauts are creative with small living spaces, and I suppose I will learning to cope soon too.

My return to (simulated) space is just a month away.  I will post more about my experience here, so check back for updates. During the study however, I will be not be able to access social media, so you’ll need to be patient. There will also be restrictions as to what I can share because of the nature of the study, but I will do my best to answer any questions that you have. Thank you for following along on my journey!

For more information about HERA and NASA’s other analog research projects, follow this link: http://www.nasa.gov/hrp/research/analogs/hera

 

Film Review: The Martian

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Every now and then space geeks are treated to a great, scientifically feasible science-fiction film.  I am happy to report that The Martian, a film adaption of the novel by the same title, is one of those films.

For those of you who haven’t read the book by author Andy Weir, go do so. In fact, you should go do that now so you can watch the film when it’s available in theaters. Really, go do it.

The Martian is a simple premise: Sometime in the near future, on the third human exploration mission to the planet Mars, a martian dust storm forces the crew to evacuate and abort the mission. Launching from the surface of the storm battered planet, they escape, leaving behind one of the crew whom they believe is killed in the attempt to reach the spacecraft.  Except he doesn’t die.

Instead, fictional astronaut and reluctant protagonist of the drama Mark Watney (played by deftly by Matt Damon) is marooned alone, very much alive, on the surface of Mars.  Faced with incomparable desolation and a meager collection of leftover equipment, Watney is forced to adapt in order to survive before a rescue mission can be launched years later.

Much of the angst fans of the book will center on the next 2 hours of the film: does it portray the science (and engineering) correctly?  Of course the answer is yes AND no. For obvious reasons, there are simply some aspects of interplanetary life that just cannot be replicated on Earth. (Or effectively in CGI, for that matter.) For example Mars has only 38 % percent of the gravity found on Earth.  The film does it’s best to diminish the impediment of Earth’s 1G, but there is just so much that can be done here on our orbital rock. Wisely, director Ridley Scott didn’t attempt to force unnecessary and poorly simulated Martian gravity into the film.

Our astronaut hero is left on Mars with but a few months ration remaining in the habitat module he makes home.  Ingeniously, he endeavors to grow potatoes from some of the few remaining examples cached in the crew’s stores. Now, when he pours raw martian regolith (as non-organic soil on extraterrestrial planets is called), I cringed.  The actual surface of Mars, besides being rich in oxidized elements, has been found to contain perchlorates– an ammonium-based substance toxic to most lifeforms, including humans. Astronauts living on Mars would be constantly working to mitigate the exposure to these chemicals. Disregarding this, the premise of growing crops to supplement future Martian explorer’s diets is a well established concept. Even today, research into growing foodstuffs on Mars is a full-time occupation for some scientists.

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I want to point out I’m not a scientist- I cannot vouch for the veracity of every aspect of the film’s scientific accuracy. (Although I have taken part in a long-duration Mars Mission Simulation)  There are some elements in the film which will likely leave some more literal viewers aghast.  I’m not one of those viewers- I can enjoy the film for it’s entertainment value alone.  Instead, space geeks should rejoice that this story remains true to the novel in almost every respect.

Space enthusiasts and aficionados will be excited to see the array of space exploration technology seen in the film. Habitat module? Remarkably similar to proposed NASA configurations. Mars rover? Again- nearly straight from the pages of industry’s designs. Even the spacesuit- which is considerably more form-fitting than contemporary EVA suits being tested BY NASA- has a basis in reality. (The Dava Newman bio-suit) Even as I typed this review, NASA unveiled a design concept for a Mars Ascent Vehicle, or “MAV”, just tlike the one that plays a key role in the plot of The Martian.

It can be said the real star of this film is Mars itself. There have been many depictions of the red planet in movies, some more accurate than others, and some downright laughable.  Perhaps because the surface of Mars is slowly becoming a part of the collective consciousness through the images returned from the rovers now exploring its geology, it takes more than just a red filter and matte frames of Monument Valley to adequately portray the planet in a movie.  The Martian doesn’t falter in this element. Wide alluvial plains, windswept hills, dust devils- even the incomparable Tharsis volcanoes make an appearance in the film.  (Some of the topography brought back memories of flying over the Sahara in Southern Algeria from my time in the service)

Perhaps the major sticking point in the science shown in the movie is very dust storm that strands poor Watney in the first minutes of the motion picture.  Mars does endure massive dust storms that envelope entire hemispheres for months at a time- but with the average density of the atmosphere being close to just 1% of that found on Earth, the devastating chaos featured in The Martian is an exaggeration of tremendous magnitudes. There is an enlightening article featured at Space.com by Elizabeth Howell that investigates this issue in detail- ‘The Martian’ Dust Storm Would Actually Be a Breeze. To read what NASA has to say about the dangers of Martian dust storms, click HERE.

The film is also limited in another dimension that just cannot be experienced in the same fashion as the novel: time.  The tedious efforts to farm, construct makeshift repairs, and simply wait was an aspect of the book that had a discernible impact in literary form. But constrained by the period in which a feature film can run, Watney’s sentence on Mars seems much too quick. The sequence depicting his cross-country road trip to seek out the defunct Pathfinder lander is an example. However, one manner in which the film succeeds in this conundrum is the visual degradation Watney experiences over the course of the story.  When we first see Damon on screen, he is a muscled movie star. By the time his character is preparing for his desperate rescue, he appears, gaunt, malnourished, and broken.  That gradual slide toward doom plays well in the film.

Besides our abandoned hero, The Martian also features a diverse cast of supporting characters that add to the whole of the odyssey.  This is a place where the film succeeds- adding a textured backdrop to Watney’s arc.  Taking place mostly at either the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, these sequences of the film at first seem jarring- almost TOO much contrast from the panorama of Martian topography. But as the audience comes to know the characters, they become more and more essential to the overall story.

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The crew of the Ares spacecraft is led by Commander Lewis, played by a guilt-ridden Jessica Chastain. Her crew is made up of Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan),  and Alex Vogel (Askel Hennie, who seems a ringer for real-life astronaut Luca Parmitano).  In many ways, the Ares crew has even fewer resources available to them to effect Watney’s rescue than he does himself. With just a docking hatch, a spacesuit, and some orbital velocity, they ensure the story happens. Personally, I’d have liked to have seen more character development of the crew- but the film reflects the book in this regard neatly.  But for what the Ares sequences lack in-depth, they make up for in grandeur on the screen. (The interior of the spacecraft seems almost laboratory-clean, at least in comparison to photographs of the interior of the International Space Station)

More impact comes through in the scenes taking place on Earth.  The audience is treated to the politics of mission management at JSC as well as the technical trouble-shooting of the engineers at JPL.  It is through the actions of the mission directors and staff that we see how the world reacts to the discovery that astronaut Watney is alive, and the frustration of being unable to devise a way to reach him as quickly as necessary.

A very serious Jeff Daniels plays “the director of NASA” (the actual title is “Administrator“), shown mostly presenting press conferences and sparring over rescue plans with flight directors Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetal Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean).  Circling around them is an array of supporting characters whose roles are to enable the solution that help to rescue Watney.  I was pleasantly surprised how well the scenes featuring the Chinese space agency fit into the overall film, considering it essentially introduces a whole new plot arc two-thirds of the way into the story.

It has been pointed out that the scenes depicting events at the Mission Control Center (MCC) and other building at JSC were NOT actually filmed there- no government facilities look that nice!  One can only assume that in future depicted in the film, NASA was appropriated a great deal more funding than it receives currently!

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The Ares’ return to Martian orbit and the “convertible rocket” rescue sequence is simply incredible on a massive movie screen.  The dance of centripetal motion as the ad-hoc rendezvous unfolds is better seen than read- an advantage the movie has over the novel. Desperate Extra-Vehicular Excursions (EVAs) are a staple of contemporary science fiction films, but few have so earnestly walked through the physics necessary like The Martian does.

Perhaps because it contrasts so much with recent space-themed dramas Gravity and Interstellar, The Martian stands apart by retaining a levity between the characters and the story that never allows the audience to feel despair.  Even at its darkest moments, the movie never twists the knife even when it could- (The scene where a catastrophic decompression of Watney’s habitat module comes to mind).  A well executed incorporation of Commander Lewis’ disco music collection plays throughout the movie, conveying in some regards the humanity that might otherwise have been lost by succumbing to an overwrought orchestral score.

There is an important addition the movie that wasn’t in Weir’s novel.  The film’s coda sequence is perhaps one of the more touching portions of the whole story, and a welcome extra.  In talking to others who’ve read the book, many are struck by the abrupt ending.  The director wisely included one more chapter to Watney’s journey for this interpretation of the story. Purists may find fault in this, but I really do think it adds to this interpretation of Weir’s novel.  I won’t spoil it here, however.  You just need to stay in your seat a few moments longer when the credits begin to play.

So, is the film any good? My answer is YES. I’ll even say it’s worth the $12 to see it in 3D or on an IMAX screen, if you have the chance.  It’s not every day we are treated to a quality science fiction film with some real science in it. Treat yourself this week and go see The Martian.

By the way, I hope you enjoy disco music…

 

Inspiration and New Horizons

Pluto.

Dwarf Planet.

A New Horizon.

Photo by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JH-APL)

Photo by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JH-APL)

In less than a week, a space probe will pass near enough to the object known as Pluto to photograph it clearly for the first time in human history.  On July 14th, the New Horizons space probe will will conduct a ‘flyby’ of Pluto and it’s moons before exiting our Solar System forever.

The photo above was taken July 5th, 2015, from a distance of approximately 9.2 to 7.8 million miles from the dwarf planet. It is remarkable in that this image clearly depicts the variations in color and materials on the planet’s surface, something that was imperceptible even to the Hubble Space Telescope, which had been used to image Pluto and its moons in preparation for this mission.

The New Horizons spacecraft is much like it’s legendary predecessor,  the Voyager and Mariner series probes. Unlike the contemporary Mars exploration craft, New Horizons will not enter in orbit around Pluto, but pass rapidly by, pointing it’s array of sensors at the target object in hopes of gathering as much data as possible in that short window of time.

Launched from Cape Canaveral in January of 2006, the spacecraft has traveled some 3 billion miles to reach it’s destination.  The timeline and flight path depicted below helps to illustrate the journey that took place over the last 9 years:

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Unlike the other planets in our system, Pluto stands out, and not just for it’s diminutive mass and volume. Furthest of the most famous nine planets, Pluto was that last to be discovered (1930) and will now be the latest to be explored.  It’s very nature has eluded astronomers and planetary scientists, who’ve adopted numerous theories to its makeup and origin.

Using a variety of instruments developed by institutions from around the country, the New Horizons team will undoubtedly collect vast amounts of data that offer new solutions to the more confounding issues surrounding the nature of Pluto.

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For those of you who are avid space enthusiasts like myself, the controversy over Pluto and it’s place in the scientific nomenclature is not a new story.  For that reason, I won’t repeat it all here. For those who unfamiliar, I encourage you to sleuth the web and follow the dialogue of Dr. Neil deGrasse  Tyson, Dr. Mike Brown, Dr. Alan Stern and the debates centered around the International Astronomical Union.

The New Horizons mission is led by the same Dr. Stern mentioned above.  He has made acclaim for his research in a number of planetary science programs, but none so much as New Horizons. His public outreach to the general public has served a pulpit of sorts, a venue for his dissenting opinion regarding the “demotion” of Pluto from being labeled a “planet” to “dwarf planet”.

Terminology aside, Dr. Stern has helped to make New Horizons a publicly recognized name and the upcoming rendezvous an international media event.  In an age of short attentions spans and politically motivated media bylines, that is a commendable accomplishment. His story was recently the focus of an article in Air and Space magazine:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/one-man-lifelong-pursuit-pluto-real-180955303/?no-ist 

What that article of course will not tell you is how much of a influence Dr. Stern has been to me personally.  If one were to ask me who were some the people whom were the most significant influences in my life (topic for a future blog post?), Dr. Alan Stern would make that list.  Although I’m not a planetary scientist, or a member of the New Horizons research team, I consider Dr. Stern to be a most singular role model.  Before I left the active service, I was exploring every option I could find to continue flying professionally that I could find.  My extensive internet searches brought me to a webpage describing a program by which a planetary scientist was flying aboard one of NASA’s F/A-18 jets to observe small orbital bodies.  Obviously, I was hooked. Who was this man? And how did he get to do such cool things!?

Further inquiry brought me more details- lessons in tenacity, innovation, and determined sense of discovery. From his appointment to NASA, leading the Suborbital Applications Research Group, and training to be a suborbital astronaut, I have followed his endeavors closely.  Regardless your opinion of the Pluto designation debate, one has to acknowledge that’s not a shabby example to emulate.  His accomplishments have been an inspiration to me, another guidepost on my own path to achieving more.

I encourage you to red more about the New Horizons mission and follow the discoveries that will take place over the next 6 days: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/overview/index.html

 

Mars Orbit Insertion – #MAVEN

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Tonight, a spacecraft will enter orbit around Mars. Last November, I had an opportunity to watch as that probe launched atop a rocket and began that journey.

That should be emphasized: the spacecraft launched November 17th, 2013. And it will enter orbit around the planet Mars tonight, September 21st, 2014.  10 months after launch, the probe has traveled 442 million miles (711 million kilometers for my continental friends) to reach it’s destination.

The journey is an accomplishment in itself.  NASA’s successes in the last decade have desensitized the general public to the challenges of spaceflight.  The difficulty of launching a space vehicle cannot be exaggerated.  Precision engineering, complex orbital mechanics, and years of research are necessary, and sometimes even that isn’t enough.

The MAVEN spacecraft is one of a series of space probes that have been launched to Mars over the last two decades as part of an ongoing, long-term exploration of the red planet.  Each of the craft that have been sent is designed to investigate a particular feature of our nearest celestial neighbor. MAVEN, or “Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN” is specifically configured with sensors to study the Martian atmosphere.

Success isn’t for certain.  In order to enter orbit around Mars, the spacecraft must fire its thrusters in order to orient the vehicle, then fire those engines continuously for 33 minutes to slow down from its en route speed. Meanwhile, controllers will uplink commands to the craft to open valves, heat essential components, and prepare the sensors to begin receiving data.  MAVEN is set to enter orbit over the planet at an altitude of just 236 miles (380 KM) above the surface.

There have more than a few spacecraft set to explore Mars that never quite made it.  Some have failed to enter orbit. Some have impacted the surface. And some never responded to signals from Earth and disappeared altogether.  If MAVEN succeeds, it will have beaten the odds.

Interplanetary flight is an inherently dangerous way to travel.  Minute errors are magnified and can have drastic results.  The length of time it takes to travel millions of miles between worlds is a long time for mechanical and digital components to fail. Events that must happen may be measured in seconds, but their implications are often measured in the lost dreams of a lifetime.

Best wishes and Godspeed to the MAVEN teams tonight.  Go MAVEN!

UPDATE: NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft successfully entered Mars’ orbit at 10:24 p.m. EDT Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014

http://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/september/nasa-s-newest-mars-mission-spacecraft-enters-orbit-around-red-planet/#.VCBLufldWSp

 

 

Suborbital Science is just around the corner

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It was announced on June 3rd that NASA’s Flight Opportunities program (NASAFO) has selected one dozen science experiments to be flown aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

This is validation of the “suborbital science” concept.  If you’ve read my earlier post about the Suborbital Applications Research Group (SARG), then you can understand my excitement about this announcement.

Suborbital spaceflight is much more than an adventure sport of the super wealthy.  Like the X-15 hypersonic research program, suborbital vehicles operate in a realm very different from both orbital and aerial craft.  This transition zone, the fuzzy line between atmosphere and space, is largely unexplored.

There exists an incredible diversity of scientific disciplines that can take advantage of the minutes of microgravity that can be achieved during a parabolic sortie.  NASA Flight Opportunities, which is the space agency’s office that manages the process of flying scientific payloads on launch vehicles, has taken advantage of the emerging commercial spaceflight industry and the proliferation of new spacecraft. Virgin made available the cabin of their suborbital spacecraft, SS2, exclusively for science experiments on its inaugural test flight to the edge of space. For a list of the payloads selected, click here

Although there have been many detractors to the longevity of the SS2 flight test program, incremental progress is being made.  Every flight provides data from which engineers can improve upon the performance and safety of the vehicle.  Test flying experimental aircraft is a hazardous vocation, and one not tolerant of haste.  So while space tourists and payloads must wait for VG’s commercial flights to begin, that wait is necessary to ensure that every effort is made to mitigate risks.

The date- or even year- that Virgin Galactic will begin commercial operations isn’t known yet. But, following this recent news, it is clear that the company will be a leader in the field of suborbital science.

HI-SEAS Mars Analog Mission reaches halfway point

The HI-SEAS habitat module on Mauna Loa volcano

The HI-SEAS habitat module on Mauna Loa volcano

Halfway.

How many explorers turned that word over in their minds, contemplating the journey ahead, and the paths behind them?

For the last 60 days, the second HI-SEAS crew and I have worked, ate, slept, read, investigated, cooked, constructed, researched and LIVED in the mock habitat module you see in the photo above.  This is our office, our laboratory, and our home.

The simulation we are a part of cannot replicate every aspect of life on Mars, there is no way to reduce atmospheric pressure or Earth’s gravity, for example.  But many of the other factors that future planetary explorers will face are ever-present here.  We are isolated enough from civilization and modern conveniences to experience them as astronauts would.

In the last 60 days, the crew and I have faced power system failures, water shortages, illness, fatigue, electrical fluctuations, spacesuit leaks, medical emergencies, network dropouts, storms, habitat leaks, and numerous equipment failures.  We’ve just emerged from a 4 day communications blackout that forced us to operate independently from our mission control and ration our water even more than normally.

Every troublesome event is has significance though, because these are lessons that provide data for NASA and the scientists studying the mission.  How the crew responds to each crisis will help future mission planners devise new techniques to mitigate risks and better prepare astronauts for the challenges of long duration missions.  Our performance as a team during every unanticipated event provides information that helps the crew selection staff determine which skills and attributes are necessary for future astronauts to possess.  Every equipment failure allows the space agencies and manufacturers an opportunity to learn what engineering solutions must be applied to creating the tools needed to survive on Mars.

The journey ahead may be much like the one we’ve already traveled, or perhaps very different.  Long duration space missions are new territory for our species.  Every analog mission like HI-SEAS helps us to learn the unanticipated and prepare for the future.  Preparation is the key to success.  It is the difference between Amundsen and Scott on their quests to reach the Antarctic pole: for both men and their respective expeditions, the pole was only the halfway point.  It was the second half of their journeys that determined which teams succeeded, and which died.