Category Archives: space

First SHERPA launch from Spaceflight, Inc. set for next year

Seattle-based Spaceflight, Inc. will make a big leap in its business of shuttling small payloads into space with the launch next year of its first SHERPA mission. The company has helped get some three dozen payloads into space, but its president, Curt Blake, says this one will be different.


Drawing of SHERPA in orbit. Courtesy Spaceflight, Inc.

“Up until now we’ve integrated the satellites on board the launch vehicle,” he explains. “This time we’re integrating a whole bunch onto the SHERPA ring.” The ring—a “secondary payload adapter ring”—has five ports around its outside, each of which can carry one or several payloads, depending on their size and configuration. Payloads can be CubeSats or NanoSats as light as a couple of kilograms, or larger satellites up to 300 kilograms. The SHERPA is capable of carrying up to 1,500 kilograms total, though for the maiden mission, set for the third quarter of 2015, it will max out at 1,200 kilograms.

Spaceflight fills an interesting niche in the commercial space business, piggybacking on planned launches and brokering rides to smaller payloads for which it doesn’t make sense to launch on their own.

“The real selling point of this is that secondary payloads generally get a cheaper ride to space, because the primary payload is the one that drives the schedule,” Blake explains. Even more importantly, the folks sending up the primary payload decide where it’s going to go, which isn’t always the ideal place for the secondaries.

“Because of that we developed the SHERPA, which lets us be deployed where the primary is getting deployed, but then we can move around to a place that’s more suitable for the secondary payload,” Blake says.

Following next year’s launch, Blake says Spaceflight is planning two launches each year, one to low-Earth orbit, and the other to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

The first SHERPA will not have its own propulsion system, but future models will, enabling even greater maneuverability and precision in delivering satellites to their intended destinations.

Spaceflight, Inc. is looking beyond the orbit of Earth. Blake says they’re already talking about taking payloads to lunar orbit—it’s a relatively easy proposition to get to the Moon from GTO—and adds that SHERPA might even be able to take small payloads as far as Mars.

“The commercialization of space is definitely leading to rapid innovation,” Blake says.

SHERPA is not an acronym. Blake says the craft was named in homage to the Himalayan guides who lug stuff up to the top of the world. In SHERPA’s case, they’re aiming a bit higher.


Funding Opportunity a “no brainer”

As Congress debates NASA’s budget there’s been some talk about pulling the plug on the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, which has been exploring the Red Planet for more than 10 years. Seattle-based Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs says that would be pure folly.

“We get so much bang for such a little buck for planetary sciences,” Hobbs says. He notes that Opportunity is a mere 600 meters away from what he calls “the promised land of clay” in the Endeavor crater—stratified clay that will give scientists a wealth of information about the geological history of Mars. It’s also a beautiful spot.

“For the photography alone it should be worth going, for the science alone it should be worth going,” Hobbs says. “Put the two together, to me, it’s a no-brainer” to keep Opportunity operating.

Opportunity on Mars

Opportunity took this self portrait in late March as wind storms cleaned its solar panels. Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / ASU

Hobbs notes that it’s just such a geological feature that caused scientists to pick Gale Crater as the destination for the Curiosity rover, which should reach its primary target later this year. Hobbs adds that, to some degree, the existence of Curiosity is a threat to Opportunity.

“If they shut down Opportunity it will be a victim of its own success and the success of all the things that JPL does,” he says.

Hobbs says Opportunity also may be a bit of a victim of over-delivering on its promise. The mission was originally slated to last 90 days, in large part because planners—a superstitious lot—didn’t want to jinx the mission by predicting a long life. Hobbs notes that we build robust spacecraft in America, but there’s a lot of uncertainty out in space.

“You’re going into an extreme environment, and who knows what could happen? You could get hit by a meteorite and be vaporized. Mission over right there,” he says. “You could not land, which is actually the biggest risk and why they sent two” rovers to land on Mars in 2004: Opportunity and Spirit, which worked until 2010. The longest anyone dared suggest the twin rovers would last is a year.

“I think everybody assumed that the first Martian winter would kill them,” Hobbs says. “They certainly thought that a dust storm would kill them. It’s blowing everybody away at this point that Opportunity is still around 10 years later. Nobody expected this.”

In fact, he says anyone who had suggested a rover would last for a decade would have been drummed out of the scientific community.

“They would have been dismissed as completely wacko!” he laughs. “Yet, here we are!”

In fact, Opportunity is working better than it has in several years. A recent wind storm cleaned off its solar panels, and they’re generating higher power than they have in a while.

Hobbs has a hunch that Opportunity ultimately will be funded. It’s continuing work on real science and the public’s love for the rover would likely generate an outcry were the plug pulled.

Stay tuned!

Further reading:


An Earth Day plea to help spot killer asteroids

Last year’s explosion of the Chelyabinsk meteor in the skies over Russia notwithstanding, most people still think that asteroid impacts on Earth are exceedingly rare events. In fact, over the last 13 years the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization has detected 26 explosions of between one and 600 kilotons.

The B612 Foundation, established to give us some early warning of asteroid strikes, used the backdrop of Earth Day to release a new video that graphically depicts the data from these impacts. The video notes that “our current strategy for dealing with asteroid impacts is blind luck.”

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Ed Lu, CEO and co-founder of the B612 Foundation, at a news conference held at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. “We humans can actually go and change this, and there is nothing stoping us from doing that.”

The foundation is working to launch the Sentinel Mission space telescope to detect possibly one million or more undiscovered asteroids in Earth’s celestial neighborhood. The mission is planned for launch in 2018.

Lu, Jones, and Anders at MOF.

Former astronaut Ed Lu, CEO of the B612 Foundation, spoke at an Earth Day news conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle about the organization’s plan for detecting Earth-threatening asteroids at an Earth Day. Seated behind Lu are former astronauts Tom Jones, left, and Bill Anders, who shot the famed “Earthrise” photo behind them from Apollo 8 at the Moon. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“This is what Earth Day is all about,” Lu said. “It’s looking at the big picture. It’s realizing that sometimes the most important thing isn’t what’s right in front of your face; it’s what you see when you look up.”

Lu said the object of the video isn’t to scare people.

“I think you should be inspired to do something,” he said. “The point of it is to roll up your sleeves and say, ‘Let’s just solve this.’”

Sentinel is based largely on the design of the Kepler Space Telescope. It would be launched into an orbit near that of Venus and would look back at Earth with infrared instruments in order to more readily spot asteroids. Lu said it will be able to spot a charcoal briquet at a distance of nearly 30,000 miles.

Former astronaut Tom Jones, president of the Association of Space Explorers, said his group is working with the UN to build international acceptance and cooperation in the effort. The association hopes to see an asteroid deflection demonstration—a process as easy as ramming a spacecraft into the object—within a decade.

“On Earth Day we focus on understanding and protecting our environment,” Jones noted. “It’s time to use our space skills to change the workings of the solar system and make sure that we protect humanity through our technology in space flight.”

A third former astronaut joined the panel to support the effort. Bill Anders shot the famed “Earthrise” photo from Apollo 8 that is sometimes called the most influential environmental image ever. While fairly new to the B612 family, Anders supports the mission, noting that it’s something NASA isn’t doing right now.

“These civilians have stepped forward and are doing something with their post-space careers that I view as quite significant, and I’m honored to be a small part of it,” Anders said.

It will cost about $250 million to build Sentinel. While Lu avoided giving any exact figures, he said they’re about 15 percent of the way to that in their fundraising. Noting that the cost is barely that of a freeway overpass, he expressed confidence that the foundation will reach that fundraising goal in time to meet their launch schedule.

“This is the only wholesale natural disaster that I know how to prevent, so that’s what I’m going to do,” Lu said.

More reading


Someone you know will travel in space soon

Leaders of four private, Northwest-based commercial spaceflight companies got together earlier this month at the Museum of Flight to talk about what we will see in their industry in the coming year. While they have some fascinating events on the docket for 2014, the conversation got most interesting when they talked about the not-much-more-distant future.

“I think we will expand out into space faster than people might realize,” predicted Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, Inc. “It’s less than five years, I think, before everyone in this room will know someone who has been higher than 100 kilometers.”


L-R: Erika Wagner of Blue Origin, Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources, Roger Myers of Aerojet, and Phil Brzytwa of Spaceflight, Inc. spoke Jan. 18 at the Museum of Flight about the future of space exploration.

Erika Wagner, business development manager of Blue Origin, said the destination is cool, but the passenger list is even better.

“Where we’re going next is more exciting than ever because space and the whole frontier is becoming democratized,” Wagner said. “It’s no longer the realm of billion- or trillion-dollar economy nations, or even of millionaire tourists; it’s getting to the point where everyone in this room can have access to space in their own way.”

Wherever anyone is going Aerojet Rocketdyne is probably helping them get there. Dr. Roger Myers, executive director for advanced in-space programs at the company, noted that “rockets from Redmond” have powered many space missions, including Cassini at Saturn and the New Horizons spacecraft that will arrive at Pluto next year.

“There’s a lot going on in 2014 and beyond,” Myers said. “There’s a great future in this business.”

Myers said that true exploration of space is going to require a variety of rockets, other propulsion systems, and transportation options.

“If we’re going to expand the human economic sphere, if we’re going to become a species that exists beyond low-Earth orbit, we’re going to have to have a transportation infrastructure that mimics what we have on the Earth,” he said.

Aerojet has rocket engines on the recently launched MAVEN spacecraft headed for Mars, and also designed engines for the Orion craft, which is scheduled for an unmanned test flight this year. Blue Origin is busy testing its BE-3 liquid-hydrogen engine. Planetary Resources anticipates the launch of its first ARKYD space telescope this year, thanks in part to a Kickstarter fundraiser last year. While others build rockets, Spaceflight, Inc. is working to get your package delivered to orbit.

Photo (1)“We want to become the or the UPS providing delivery of cargo to space,” said Phil Brzytwa, head of sales and business development for the company. “We want our customers to be able to pay by the seat not pay for the entire launch vehicle.” Spaceflight, Inc. works the details and can send up numerous small satellites, cube-sats, and other smaller projects as part of a single payload, making things less complicated for everyone.

Many folks still find personal spaceflight and asteroid mining to be pretty far-fetched concepts, but Lewicki said we should not be so shocked at the rapid advance of technology.

“One hundred fifty years ago there wasn’t an internal combustion engine, and the idea of a steam-powered train was high-tech, and was getting us rapidly across the countryside faster than a horse could,” he noted. It didn’t take so long to get to horseless carriages and lighter-than-air flying machines. Lewicki doesn’t think affordable space travel and mining the solar system for resources are alien concepts.

“If we can conceive of it we can make it happen,” he said. “There’s nothing in the laws of physics that says these things aren’t possible. It’s just a matter of bit-by-bit finding the best use of them, finding the markets and the economies that drive the need for them, and then making them scalable enough so that everyone can benefit from them.”

“We are living during extremely exciting times, the likes of which will be written about in the history books,” Lewicki added, because “this is the time when our species got off the planet.”


Scanning atmospheres for signs of extraterrestrial life

Giada Arney thinks that life likely exists somewhere besides Earth. Arney, a third-year Ph.D. student in astronomy and astrobiology at the University of Washington, gave a talk at November’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society about the search for the origins of life in the universe.

“Some of us like me who are astrobiologists think it’s likely that life has arisen elsewhere in the cosmos and perhaps elsewhere in our own solar system,” Arney said. “But so far the only evidence we have for life that actually exists is on this singular planet.”

UW planetarium

Ph.D. candidate Giada Arney is planetarium coordinator at the University of Washington, and used the facility, refurbished a couple of years ago, to illustrate her talk about astrobiology. This shot of Earth was part of the talk. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

It’s hard to extrapolate from a single data point, but Arney is on the case. The educated guess that there’s some form of life out there stems from the fact that the raw materials are all over the place. Asteroids, for example, are loaded with water and carbon molecules—and much more.

“We’ve looked at the composition of various types of very carbon-rich asteroids, and we’ve looked at the specific types of carbon molecules that exist in those asteroids,” Arney said. “We found sugars, we found amino acids—the building blocks of proteins in our cells. We found nucleic acids, the building blocks of our DNA.”

“What this suggests is that these building blocks of life are easy for nature to synthesize and they’re cosmically common,” she said.

On top of that, Arney said study of the interstellar medium reveals lots of sugars and alcohols. This had me thinking, “Well, what else do you need?!” Arney said that the significance of these is that they’re the building blocks for amino acids. Astrobiologists have yet to pinpoint amino acids in the interstellar medium—it’s exceedingly difficult to pick out their spectral fingerprints—but Arney bets they’re there.

“This suggests that this complex carbon chemistry, that at least life on Earth requires, is cosmically abundant,” she concluded.

Arney’s research bailiwick is planetary atmospheres, and that’s where astrobiologists are going to look for evidence of life on other planets. There are plenty of potential places to investigate. Arney said that around eight percent of low-mass stars have an Earth-size planet in their habitable zones. She said a recent analysis of Kepler data that put this figure at close to 20 percent came in too high because of what she feels is an overly generous definition of the zone. Even eight percent, though, gives scientists a lot of planets to explore. The ultimate test will involve direct imaging and spectroscopy of the exoplanets’ atmospheres, something we can’t really do yet.

“Once direct-imaging missions become possible, we’re going to look for gases like water vapor and oxygen in the atmospheres of exoplanets,” Arney said. “Maybe that will give us evidence for life on these planets.”

The effort will require use of another rare element: cash.

“It will be a very expensive mission because it’s going to require a very big telescope,” she said, bigger even than Hubble or Webb. “You need to collect a lot of photons in order to measure the spectra of an exoplanet to have a high enough signal-to-noise ratio to be able to confidently say, ‘Hey, there’s oxygen in this planet’s atmosphere.’”

Arney expects life is out there.

“Microbial life is probably common, but the general consensus in the astrobiology community is that complex life and certainly intelligent life is probably remarkably rare,” she concluded.

The search continues.


Samammish astronomer uses video to share the WOW factor

A little girl’s interest in outer space gave Samammish, Wash. amateur astronomer Ted Cook a golden opportunity to combine three of his favorite things: his passion for education, his love for astronomy, and his profession as a photographer and video producer.

When his niece developed an interest in space at a young age, Cook’s sister looked around for educational materials suitable for a youngster. She didn’t find much. Her plan B: “Ask Uncle Ted.”

“I thought if nothing is out there, maybe I can start to put together some stuff and put it out there for kids,” Cook recalled.

He had a bit of a head start. A history buff, Cook already had created a series of videos about Washington state history, animated episodes in which characters Herc, Velocity, and their dog Laika visited people and places from the state’s past.

“I had these characters created, and I had this whole setup, and I thought how about if we move to what I really love, which is astronomy,” Cook said.

Between 2006 and 2008 Ted Cook Productions created three astronomy DVDs, which were sold at museums and planetariums around the country. These three, along with his four state-history disks, are still available for sale on his website. Because of the challenges of producing and distributing physical disks, and the growth of YouTube and other services, he decided to put new astronomy videos online. In addition, this year Cook embarked on an ambitious plan of producing four educational pieces every month, under the banner of “Let’s Explore Astronomy.” Three of them will be videos: one about astronomy history, one about the how-to’s of the hobby, and one about what can be seen in the night sky in that particular month. A fourth piece will be a written recap of astronomy news for the previous month. He’s done about five of each so far.

This month, for example, Cook’s “Andromeda Time-Slip Theater” is taking a look at Mars: Herc and Velocity listen to part of the famed Orson Welles radio drama about a Martian invasion.

“They’re talking about Percival Lowell and the canals, and ‘The War of the Worlds,’ and then what the rovers found,” Cook said. “We look at how we moved from Percival Lowell thinking he’d found canals on Mars to finding there was once water there.” Take a look:

Cook said he aims to make the videos accessible for kids in about 5th or 6th grade, but wants adults to be able to get something out of them, too.

“I wanted to make it so that someone who is just getting into astronomy or wants to know more about it can learn without it being total mathematics,” Cook explained.

Cook hopes to keep the videos free, and is offering them to astronomy clubs around the country to use in their outreach efforts. He’s considering creating accompanying curriculum and hands-on activities that could be used in classrooms or for any youngster who wants to learn more about space. He’s already developed a game that he uses for outreach events with younger kids, in which they can learn about order of the planets and some facts about each one.

Making it a paying enterprise may take some doing. Cook has a couple of sponsors for the videos and may pursue grant funding or other ways to help offset the costs of creating the programs.

It was almost inevitable that Cook would be interested in space.

“My dad worked at the Kennedy Space Center during the Apollo days, so that was my playground when I was a kid,” he said. “I was inspired because I was there. I saw it every day.”

“I was hooked, I knew all of the astronauts’ names,” Cook added.

Cook actually is a rocket scientist; he earned a degree in aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech, but later studied photography at UCLA. He’s been in that business as a shooter and a teacher for some 30 years. But he still maintains a sense of wonder and awe when talking about astronomy and space.

“It is the new frontier, it has the wow factor,” Cook said as he explained his passion for outreach and getting others interested in the hobby, or perhaps in astronomy as a career. “You’re looking at these things going WOW! That’s cool! I think that has a lot to do with it. The people respond because of the wow factor.”

There’s a lovely completed circle in this story. Cook’s niece Delenn Larsen, the little girl who launched him on this trajectory, is now 13 years old and remains interested in space and astronomy. In fact, she is the voice of the character Velocity in the videos!

In addition to educational videos, Ted Cook Productions also offers astronomy tours of New Mexico, a venture on which Cook is teamed with Dr. Alan Hale, the co-discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp.

You can check out Cook’s videos on YouTube or on the Ted Cook Productions website. Spread the word to the young space nuts in your universe.


PRI ups ante on crowdfunded space telescope project

Planetary Resources, Inc. has upped the ante on its crowdfunded space telescope project. The company says if the campaign raises $2 million it will enhance the project to include exoplanet-hunting capabilities.

ARKYD updateThe Kickstarter campaign was launched less than two weeks ago with a goal to raise $1 million. As of this afternoon more than 9,500 backers had kicked in more than $857,000—including $25 from Seattle Astronomy. It seems a cinch, with 19 days left in the campaign, that they’ll make the original goal. The additional funds under the stretch goal would add exoplanet transit detection capability to the ARKYD telescope by enhancing its stability systems and dedicating scope time to monitor candidate star systems. The upgrade would also allow for better measurement of the spin-properties of asteroids, using the same technique.

“While the ARKYD won’t rival NASA’s $600 million Kepler spacecraft, which may have to end its mission due to a recent equipment failure, the enhanced ARKYD will be a huge step toward important new scientific discoveries enabled by citizen scientists,” said Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources, in a company news release.

You can read about the update on the project’s Kickstarter page.