"We've Got a Dragon by the Tail"

At 9:56 AM EDT (1356 UTC), the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) successfully grappled the Dragon spacecraft. This is the first commercial spacecraft to reach the International Space Station. Additional manipulations are required to berth the Dragon to a docking port.

“Looks like we’ve got a Dragon by the tail,” station flight engineer Don Pettit said moments after grappling the craft over northwest Australia.

Opening of the ports and beginning to unpack the spacecraft will begin tomorrow, Saturday.

The spacecraft is to be loaded with about 1300 pounds of science experiments and other material and returned to Earth on 31 May. Dragon will land in the Pacific, several hundred miles off of Southern California.

SpaceX Commentary on Dragon's Flight Day 3 and the Challenges Ahead

Hawthorne, CA – Today, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft completed key on-orbit tests as part of a historic attempt to be the first commercial company in history to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station.

In the days since SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the vehicle has steadily completed one task after another as it prepares to berth with the International Space Station. Only minutes after the spacecraft separated from the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage, its solar arrays successfully deployed, providing power to the spacecraft. The door that had been covering sensors needed for proximity operations opened successfully.

On Tuesday and Wednesday Dragon traveled in orbit, firing its thrusters to catch up to the space station. During that time, the vehicle hit a series of milestones. Dragon showed its Absolute Global Positioning System (GPS) is in good working order. The vehicle demonstrated both a pulsed and a full abort. It also demonstrated free drift, floating freely in orbit as it will when grappled by the space station’s robotic arm. And its proximity operations sensors and SpaceX’s COTS UHF Communication Unit (CUCU) are up and running.

Early this morning, Dragon’s thrusters fired, bringing the vehicle 2.4 kilometers below the International Space Station. The vehicle completed two key tests at that distance. Dragon demonstrated its Relative GPS and established a communications link with the International Space Station using CUCU. Astronauts commanded on Dragon’s strobe light to confirm the link worked.

With these tests complete, Dragon has started the trip flying around the space station, returning the spacecraft to its original approach location.

Dragon has been performing well, but the most difficult aspects of the mission are still ahead.

FRIDAY MORNING – Final Approach, Dragon Grapple

Around 2:00 AM Pacific/5:00 AM Eastern NASA will decide if Dragon is GO to move into the approach ellipsoid 1.4 kilometers around the space station. If Dragon is GO, after approximately one hour Dragon will move to a location 250 meters directly below the station. Dragon will then perform a series of maneuvers to show systems are operating as expected. If NASA is satisfied with the results of these many tests, Dragon will be allowed to perform the final approach to the space station.

Sometime around 6:00 AM Pacific/9:00 AM Eastern, astronauts on the space station will grapple Dragon with the space station’s robotic arm and the spacecraft will attach to the station.


If all goes well, at approximately 2:00 AM Pacific/5:00 AM Eastern, the crew will start procedures to open Dragon’s hatch. It will take around 2 hours to complete all operations leading to the hatch opening. Once the hatch is opened, astronauts will enter Dragon for the first time
in space.

All dates and times are approximate and could easily change.

This is SpaceX’s second demonstration flight under a 2006 Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA to develop the capability to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station. Demonstration launches are conducted to determine potential issues so that they might be addressed; by their very nature, they carry a significant risk. If any aspect of the mission is not successful, SpaceX will learn from the experience and try again.

Dragon Flies Under the International Space Station

Solar Panels
Dragon Solar Panels Visible
Image Credit: NASA TV

This image was captured moments before ISS contact was lost. Several minutes later, Dragon crossed directly under the International Space Station and disappeared into the shadow of the Earth.

All tests so far have been concluded successfully. Today, Dragon will continue its flight around the space station.

Tomorrow, it will approach and eventually be berthed with the space station.

SpaceX Launches Dragon Toward ISS

Falcon 9 Ignition
Image Credit: NASA TV

Falcon 9 Liftoff
Image Credit: NASA TV

Falcon 9 Ascent
Image Credit: NASA TV

Falcon 9 Downrange
Image Credit: NASA TV

Falcon 9 Separation of the Second Stage
Image Credit: NASA TV

Second Ignition
Falcon 9 Second Stage Ignition
Image Credit: NASA TV

2nd ShutdownSeparation
Falcon 9 Second Stage Shutdown
Image Credit: NASA TV

Falcon 9 Second Stage Shutdown Complete
Image Credit: NASA TV

Edoardo Amaldi Resuppy Mission to the ISS

ATV-3 Inside Fairing
Image Credit: ESA

Previously delayed, the European Space Agency is ready to launch the Edoardo Amaldi this evening. The mission is to provide supplies to the International Space Station, including a spare Fluids Control Pump Assembly (FCPA). This is a critical component on the ISS used to recycle urine into drinkable water and the spare is going up with ATV-3.

Following ESA’s formal Launch Readiness Review on Monday, which revealed no problems with the vessel, the launch was officially set for Friday 23 March at 0434 UTC. This is Thursday evening at 9:34 PM Phoenix time, tonight.

On Wednesday, Ariane and ATV Edoardo Amaldi were rolled out to the launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana. The total vehicle mass is 777 tonnes –the heaviest ever for an Ariane. This ATV is also the rocket’s heaviest payload so far.

As the launch countdown progresses, we will add updates and images from Kourou. Live video from Arianespace can be seen here.

At the moment, it is 3:34 PM in Phoenix, and we are six hours from launch.

The Ariane 5 carrying ATV-3 rolled out to the launch pad yesterday, Wednesday.

Rollout Wednesday
Image Credit: ESA TV

Rollout Wednesday
Image Credit: ESA TV

With four hours until launch, there are light rain showers. The temperature is 77° Fahrenheit. Thunderstorms are predicted for later tonight with 50% chance of rain.

One hour to launch.

At 9:16 PM Phoenix time, we are less than 20 minutes from the launch of the Edoardo Amaldi. All systems are currently green. This is the 65th Ariane 5

NASA TV is also covering the launch live.

At T-minus 7 minutes we are moving into automatic computer operations. Any operational problem would require recycling to T-minus 7.

T-minus 2 minutes, and weather is good, synchronized sequence is running.

Launch and everything looks good at the moment.

At three (3:00) minutes into the launch, the boosters have separated, and now we have fairing separation.

T-minus 14
T-minus 14
Image Credit: NASA TV

T-minus 9
T-minus 9
Image Credit: NASA TV

Launch of ATV-3
Image Credit: NASA TV

Ariane 5 Downrange
Image Credit: NASA TV

We now have Main Engine Cutoff. Stage Separation and second stage burn.

At twelve minutes into the flight, all systems are performing nominally.

At 18 minutes into the mission, ATV-3 is at altitude of 147.4 kilometers, and a velocity of 7.56 km/sec/

18 minutes into the mission
Image Credit: NASA TV

For die hard fans of the launch sequence and flight times, here is the ESA time-line for the Edoardo Amaldi Mission:

  • –11 hr 30 mn Start of final countdown
  • –4 hr 50 mn Start of filling of main cryogenic stage with liquid oxygen and hydrogen
  • –1 hr 10 mn Check of connections between launcher and telemetry, tracking and command systems
  • –7 min 00 sec ‘All systems go’ report at Launch Control Centre, allowing start of synchronised sequence
  • –1 min 00 sec Switch to onboard power
  • –04 sec Onboard systems take over
  • –03 sec Unlocking of guidance systems to flight mode
  • H0 Ignition of the Ariane 5 main stage engine
  • +7.0 sec Ignition of solid boosters
  • +7.3 sec Liftoff
  • +17.1 sec Beginning of roll manoeuvre
  • +2 min 22 sec Booster separation
  • +3 min 26 sec Fairing jettison
  • +8 min 54 sec End of main engine firing
  • +9 min 00 sec Upper stage separation
  • +9 min 07 sec Beginning of upper stage first burn
  • +17 min 18 sec End of upper stage first burn
  • +59 min 23 sec Beginning of upper stage second burn
  • +59 min 51 sec End of upper stage second burn
  • +1 hr 3 min 50 sec ATV separation
  • +1 hr 35 min 30 sec ATV solar array deployment complete

At the moment, all systems are green and ATV-3 is set to automatically dock with the Station’s Russian Zvezda module during the night of 28–29 March.

European Space Agency 30 Days from ATV Resupply Mission

Loading Cargo Aboard ATV 3 – Edoardo Amaldi
Image Credit: ESA / CNES / Arianespace / Optique Video du CSG–S. Martin 2011

The European Space Agency’s Edoardo Amaldi mission to the International Space Station is scheduled for 1000 UTC on 9 March 2012. It is scheduled to dock with the ISS at 0138 UTC on 19 March, and stay attached until the end of August, when it will detach and de-orbit with tons of garbage and burn up in the atmosphere.

This is the third mission by ESA to the ISS and will carry almost six tons of cargo:

  • two tons of dry cargo
  • 285 kg of water
  • more than three tons of propellants

Assembled ATV 3 Spacecraft
Image Credit: ESA / CNES / Arianespace / Optique Video du CSG – J.M. Guillon

SpaceX Slips Dragon Mission to ISS

SpaceX announced that it will slip the launch of the Dragon spacecraft aboard a Falcon 9 from the original 7 February 2012 date. The specific reason for the delay was not specified, but was related to a “sense of responsibility in returning US crewed access to LEO”.

NASASpaceFlight notes that SpaceX was slipping in order to allow for due diligence “safety checks” ahead of launch.

The Dragon mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. SpaceX plans to accomplish the milestones originally assigned to both flight two and three. The first flight occurred in December 2010.

It is expected that the slip will only be two to three weeks.

More Planets than Stars – But Axial Tilt may be the Key to Life

There is an average of more than one planet per star in the Milky Way
Image Credit: NASA / ESA / ESO

With the forthcoming publication in the journal Nature on 12 January, it is estimated that there are more than 100 billion planets in our Milky Way galaxy. That means more than one planet per star, and results show that there are more rocky small Earth-like planets than giant Jupiter-size gas planets.

Most recent discoveries have come from the Kepler Observatory using transit observations. Some of the earliest confirmation of gas giants came from radial velocity Doppler observations.

The conclusions in the Nature article are based on micro-lensing studies.

Recent results from the Kepler Observatory have shown the existence of three small, rocky planets around the star KOI-961, a red dwarf. These three planets, named KOI-961.01, KOI-961.02 and KOI-961.03, are 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times the radius of Earth. The smallest is about the size of Mars (see below). Follow-up observations were made by the Palomar Observatory, near San Diego, and the Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Relative size of the three rocky planets around KOI-961
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Since it is now clear that rocky planets exist around millions, if not billions, of stars, the question arises as to whether there is life on them, and whether it may resemble life on Earth.

Whether a planet exists in the “Goldilocks” region around a star depends on many factors. Three factors include the type of star, how far away from the star the planet resides and the atmospheric pressure of the planet. A red dwarf, such as Gliese 581, means the planet has to be closer than the Earth to our Sun. A white hot star means the planet has to be farther away. And if the atmosphere is low, like Mars, or to high, like Venus, liquid water is not likely.

A fourth factor is axial tilt. If a planet has no axial tilt (the spin axis is perpendicular to the plane of its orbit around the star) then the polar regions freeze and the equatorial regions bake. There is little exchange between these regions due to atmospheric circulation. Axial tilt, such as the Earth has, allows distribution of heat between the equator and the poles.

Even if a planet has axial tilt, a recent study shows that interaction at a close distance (within the “Goldilocks” region) with red dwarf will eliminate axial tilt in less than 100 million years. Bacteria on Earth required 1,000 million years to evolve. Theoretically, a planet with no axial tilt could possess bands between the equator and the poles where liquid water would exist. But, it is quite possible the atmosphere would collapse, with gases being driven off into space at the very hot equator, and freezing solid on the ground at the poles. Such a possibility faces the planets around KOI 961.

Systems with stars like our Sun present better possibilities. The “Goldilocks” conditions exist much farther out, and axial tilt is eliminated much more slowly, as our Earth is witness. Systems such as Kepler-22b are good candidates.

The conclusion drawn from these studies is that systems similar to our Solar System present the best opportunities for life.

Vesta Full Frame

Vesta Image from 5,200 kilometers
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA
See also full rotation movie of Vesta.

The Dawn spacecraft has completed imaging of Vesta from an altitude of 5,200 kilometers and has begun spiraling down to an altitude of 2,700 kilometers for the first series of scientific observations.

Chris Russell, Dawn’s principal investigator at UCLA, notes:

We have been calling Vesta the smallest terrestrial planet. The latest imagery provides much justification for our expectations. They show that a variety of processes were once at work on the surface of Vesta and provide extensive evidence for Vesta’s planetary aspirations.

Below are additional images of Vesta from the 24 July collection.

The “Snowman” on Vesta
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA
The Southern Hemisphere of Vesta with a multitude of craters
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Is an Earth Trojan Asteroid the Logical Target for the "Flexible Path"?

Trojan Asteroid 2010 TK7
Asteroid 2010 TK7 is circled in green.
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA
Scientists using the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have discovered the first Trojan Asteroid in Earth orbit. Trojans orbit at a location in front of or behind a planet known as a Lagrange Point.

A video of the asteroid and its orbit at the Lagrange point can be found here.

Martin Connors of Athabasca University in Canada is the lead author of a new paper on the discovery in the July 28 issue of the journal Nature.

Connors notes that:

These asteroids dwell mostly in the daylight, making them very hard to see. But we finally found one, because the object has an unusual orbit that takes it farther away from the sun than what is typical for Trojans. WISE was a game-changer, giving us a point of view difficult to have at Earth’s surface.

TK7 is roughly 300 meters in diameter and traces a complex motion around SEL-4 (Sun Earth Lagrange point 4). The asteroid’s orbit is stable for at least the next 100 years and is currently about 80 million kilometers from the Earth. In that time, it is expected to come no closer that 24 million kilometers.

The obvious question is whether this is the logical destination for NASA’s Flexible Path manned asteroid mission? The Lagrange 4 point (SEL-4) is a logical way station on the Solar System exploration highway. Other NEO asteroids that have been identified as possible targets are few and much more difficult to reach and return than an asteroid located directly at SEL-4 would be. An asteroid located there could well be the target of opportunity that opens manned exploration of the Solar System in an “easy” mode. Unfortunately, Asteroid 2010 TK7 would not serve as such a target because it travels in an eccentric orbit around SEL-4 so far above and below the plane of Earth’s orbit that it would require very large amounts of fuel to reach.

NEOWISE is the program for searching the WISE database for Near Earth Objects (NEO), as well as other asteroids in the Solar System.The NEOWISE project observed more than 155,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and more than 500 NEOs, discovering 132 that were previously unknown.