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

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

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.

Nasa To Seek Applicants For Next Astronaut Candidate Class

HOUSTON — In early November, NASA will seek applicants for its next class of astronaut candidates who will support long-duration missions to the International Space Station and future deep space exploration activities.

“For scientists, engineers and other professionals who have always dreamed of experiencing spaceflight, this is an exciting time to join the astronaut corps,” said Janet Kavandi, director of flight crew operations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “This next class will support missions to the station and will arrive via transportation systems now in development. They also will have the opportunity to participate in NASA’s continuing exploration programs that will include missions beyond low Earth orbit.”

A bachelor’s degree in engineering, science or math and three years of relevant professional experience are required in order to be considered. Typically, successful applicants have significant qualifications in engineering or science, or extensive experience flying high-performance jet-aircraft.

After applicant interviews and evaluations, NASA expects to announce the final selections in 2013, and training to begin that August.

Additional information about the Astronaut Candidate Program is available by calling the Astronaut Selection Office at 281-483-5907 or by visiting

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.

Craters on Vesta

Vesta Craters
Craters on Vesta
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft obtained this image of the protoplanet Vesta with its framing camera on July 18, 2011. It was taken from a distance of about 10,500 kilometers. The smallest detail visible is about 2.0 km.

In August, Dawn will begin sending images from its high resolution camera.

NASA Job Fair Planned in Cape Canaveral, July 26 2011

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and Brevard Workforce are partnering to host a job fair with private sector companies and federal employers from across the country on July 26. The Space Coast Job Fair and Hands-on Training Event takes place at 11 a.m. EDT at the Radisson Resort at the Port, 8701 Astronaut Blvd., Cape Canaveral, Florida. More than 45 employers are expected to take part in the event.

NASA has been working with local, state and federal officials to provide future planning support and placement for non-civil servant contractors who work to support the Space Shuttle Program, which will end next month. In addition to this event, NASA’s Human Resources Office has hosted workshops, seminars and other events to help prepare employees for future opportunities. For more information about Kennedy’s work force support efforts, visit:

The National Space Society and Space Frontier Foundation also maintain directories of space companies. Visit these to find future job openings:

ISDC 2011 – Flight System Development Forum

ISDC conference report by Dave Fischer

This is the first of two articles about the NASA Heavy Lift Vehicle program mandated by Congress.

Dan Dumbacher, Director of Engineering (NASA HQ)
Todd May, Associate Director, Technical (NASA MSFC)
Garry Lyles, Associate Director for Technical Management (NASA MSFC)

Dan Dumbacher introduced the panel by noting that NASA has been tasked with development of the next Heavy Lift Vehicle, and the folks at the Marshall Space Flight Center would like to get on with the job of building the next launch vehicle.

However, NASA’s budget is constrained by the current economy, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it is likely to decrease somewhat over time.

The primary challenges in the confusing state of affairs revolve around the constituencies, as it always does in a political environment. The NASA Reauthorization Act of 2010, the 2011 budget from the administration, and the language of the compromise budget resolution for NASA in the summer of 2011 have all contributed to the muddled state of affairs.

The current manned programs include the International Space Station and Commercial Cargo and Crew. The new beyond-low-Earth-orbit program will require new infrastructure, a new launch vehicle, a new spacecraft (such as the Orion – Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle), and ground support.

Todd May comes from the International Space Station project, certainly the most ambitious and complex international project ever conducted. Todd reviewed the results of the 13 heavy lift proposals received from industry. There is no magic rocket. However, cost was heavily influenced by NASA management and oversight practices as well as flight rate.

Garry Lyles then gave a detailed description of the work done over the past year on the heavy lift vehicle. Interestingly, he noted that he had spent time at a conference of building architects. They taught him that design beauty grew out of the requirements of the building, and that operational simplicity grew out of internal complexity.

He chose to test the concept of machine beauty with the Requirements Analysis Cycle (RAC). Three teams were created. One was devoted to Lox/H2, the second to Lox/RP and the third could choose either combination, but would focus on a lean manufacturing philosophy. Their results would be folded into the first two teams within the first half of the cycle. The final instructions to the teams were to be innovative and have fun.

The teams conducted several thousand parametric studies. One result was that many combinations would satisfy the physical requirements. By the end of the studies, the primary drivers of affordability, however, turned out to be lean systems engineering, stable requirements and simple organization. Reduction in development time was critical. Private industry knew that first to market with reduced cycle time meant lower people costs, which are a major component of overall costs. The subject of how NASA’s program might relate to Falcon Heavy was not addressed.

Difficult changes will be required from the traditional risk-averse NASA culture in order to accomplish these goals. It is going to be hard for NASA to adapt and adopt the key practices:

1. The machine will be complex, but the operation must be simple
2. Adjust the design in order to simplify the manufacturing process
3. Requirements must be early and stable
4. There must be margin in performance
5. Cycle time must be as quick as possible, but no quicker
6. Streamline the oversight of contractors

Without these cultural changes, it will be impossible for NASA to accomplish the heavy lift task in front of it.