Category Archives: space

Occultation, meteor shower highlight week’s events

An occultation of Venus, a meteor shower, and a couple of talks about the nature of light are the highlights of this week’s Seattle Astronomy calendar.

Let there be light

The co-authors of the new book Coloring the Universe: An Insider’s Look at Making Spectacular Images of Space (University of Alaska Press, 2015) have three appearances set in the Seattle area over the next couple of weeks. In the book the authors describe how large, professional telescopes work, what scientists learn with them, and how the scopes are used to make color images. Coloring the Universe is filled with brilliant images of deep space as well as an insider’s perspective by the people who make them.

Megan Watzke, press officer for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, will give a talk titled “The Unseen Power of Light” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, December 8 at Town Hall Seattle. Watzke will explore the many, often surprising ways light interacts with us and shapes the universe we live in. She’ll also share images from another of her books, Light: The Visible Spectrum and Beyond (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2015).

Travis Rector, professor of astrophysics at the University of Alaska Anchorage, will make a presentation about Coloring the Universe at 7 p.m. Thursday, December 10 at Ada’s Technical Books on Capitol Hill. Rector’s talk will focus on what professional astronomers do, and what they don’t do, when making spectacular images of the heavens.

Both Rector and Watzke will appear next Wednesday, December 16 at the monthly meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Moon occults Venus

If we get a little break in the clouds this morning we’ll have a chance to watch the Moon occult Venus! Get out a little before 8 a.m. Monday, Dec. 7 and you’ll have a chance to watch the Moon move in front of Venus. You may need binoculars; Venus can be awfully tough to spot in the daylight. Universe Today has a good article about how to view this event.

The week’s other viewing highlight is the Geminid meteor shower, which will peak Sunday and Monday, December 13 and 14. This article from EarthSky.org has everything you want to know about this meteor shower.

This week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope includes other observing highlights for the week.

What’s next for humans in space?

Would you love to see humans walk on Mars? The Enterprise Forum Northwest will host a discussion about the challenges of going to Mars at the Impact Hub Seattle at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, December 9. A panel will discuss the technological hurdles, biomedical risks, competing priorities, cost, and other factors involved. The discussion will be moderated by Alan Boyle, aerospace and science editor for GeekWire, and panelists will include former astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Aerojet Rocketdyne executive Roger Myers, Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources, and University of Hawaii professor Kim Binstead.

Tickets for the event are $39 and are available online.

The Seattle Futurist Society will host a discussion of our future in space beginning at 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12 at We Work at the Holyoke Building. Speakers include Kati Rissanen, an independent professional who comes from the academic world of futures studies, and Robert P. Hoyt, CEO & Chief Scientist at Tethers Unlimited Inc.

Tickets are $10 and are available onlne.

Astronomy club events

taslogoTacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 12 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. They will offer a presentation about the Christmas Star. On Bainbridge Island the Battle Point Astronomical Association will offer a planetarium show, Silly Star Wars Xmas Special, beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. Astronomer Dave Fong will take participants on a journey to places far, far away that could have inspired scenes in Star Wars. It’s free for BPAA members, $2 donation suggested for nonmembers. Both events will have telescopes available for observing if weather permits.

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Museum of Flight receives F-1 engines that launched Apollo

Forty-six years ago today Apollo 12 became the second craft to land people on the Moon. Today the Museum of Flight received an incredible treasure: parts of the Rocketdyne F-1 engines that blasted Apollo into orbit.

Doug King, president of the Museum of Flight, announces the gift of the Apollo F-1 engines at a news conference Nov. 19, 2015. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Doug King, president of the Museum of Flight, announces the gift of the Apollo F-1 engines at a news conference Nov. 19, 2015. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The engines were found at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 2013 by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and his team from Bezos Expeditions. Bezos requested that the engines be donated to the museum and NASA honored that request.

“This is truly a historic day for the museum, for our community,” said Doug King, president and CEO of the Museum of Flight. “I don’t think it’s too grandiose to say for our country and maybe even for humankind.”

“Exhibiting these historic engines not only shares NASA’s storied history, it also helps America educate to innovate,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a news release. “This display of spaceflight greatness can help inspire our next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and explorers to build upon past successes and create the new knowledge and capabilities needed to enable our journey to Mars.”

Bezos said he became interested in science and exploration as a five-year-old watching Neil Armstrong’s first small step on the Moon.

“You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you,” he said. Bezos said he thinks about rockets at lot, and one day it occurred to him that it would be great to find and restore those F-1 engines. The engineers who built them were working to send people to the Moon, and few folks at the time were thinking about posterity.

Expendable stuff

“That first stage with these gigantic engines is expendable; it’s supposed to crash into the ocean, that was the whole plan,” Bezos said.

Jeff Bezos

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos talks about his passion for space and the project to recover the F-1 engines. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“We’re working on changing that plan,” he continued. “I have this space company called Blue Origin; we’re trying to make reusable rockets because we don’t like throwing the hardware away.”

It took Bezos all of ten minutes of Internet searching to find the coordinates at which NASA said the Apollo 11 first stage rocket crashed. The hunt was on.

“That was going to prove to be the only easy thing about this project,” Bezos laughed. It was an incredibly complicated endeavor. Bezos Expeditions put together a team of more than 60 people who are experts in ocean recovery. They searched some 300 square miles of ocean with side-scanning sonar to find the engines and then pulled them out from under 14,000 feet of seawater, where they’d been at rest for more than 40 years.

The parts were restored at the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas. Much of the damage to the engines was caused not by their high-speed crash into the sea, but by silt and corrosion from four decades in salt water, though the large and highly recognizable bell-shaped nozzle extensions were badly mangled.

Great museum pieces

Geoff Nunn, the adjunct curator for space history at the museum, said the engines that drove Apollo were marvels of engineering.

Geoff Nunn

Geoff Nunn, adjunct curator for space history at the Museum of Flight, talked about what makes the F-1 engines a special artifact. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“The Rocketdyne F-1 was the largest single-chambered liquid-fueled rocket ever flown,” Nunn said. “Each engine produced over a million and a half pounds of thrust and stood 18 and a half feet tall.”

That’s quite a kick. King said all of the planes in the museum’s entire collection collectively have only half that much thrust. Five F-1s launched each Saturn V.

The first piece unwrapped at the news conference this morning, still in its shrink wrap from Cosmosphere, was an injector plate from one of the Apollo 12 engines.

“The injector plate is really what is key to making the F-1 engine an engine and not just a million and a half pounds of bomb,” Nunn explained. “It’s covered in these minute holes that release fuel and oxidizer in an incredibly precise mixture in order to ensure that the combustion that occurs is smooth and controlled.”

Bezos injector

Bezos talks about the workings of the F-1 engine injector plate. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Some of the F-1 engine components will go on public display at the museum starting Saturday and will be out until early January. The full collection will be part of a new, permanent exhibit that will open late next year or in early 2017.

For Bezos, finding and restoring artifacts like the F-1 engines is not about looking to the past.

“It’s about today and it’s about the future,” he said. “It’s about building a 21st-century version of the F-1 engine. It’s about building reusable rockets.

“Civilization for many centuries has been getting better and better, and the point of recovering an object like this is to remind us of who we are and what we can do as we move forward as a civilization.”

The video below from Bezos Expeditions tells the tale of the recovery of the F-1 engines from the briny Atlantic.

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Seattle’s Spaceflight Industries flying high

It’s been a whale of a month for Seattle-based space-services company Spaceflight. Since late September the company has purchased a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, announced it will use it to launch a private Israeli mission to the Moon as part of the Lunar XPrize competition, and, most recently, brought a third ground station online to facilitate better communication with the bevy of small satellites it has helped put into space.

Andrews

Jason Andrews is president and CEO of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries.

“We’ve got a little bit going on,” said Spaceflight president and CEO Jason Andrews in something of an understatement. “It’s fun; what we do is really exciting. Anytime you buy a rocket and send it towards the Moon, how can you not love it?”

Andrews said the industry is really taking off.

“There is this sudden, rapid advancement of commercial space—some people call it new space—and it’s really been brought about in the last three or four years due to improvements in technology and access to space,” he said. “You can finally build spacecraft that are the size of a shoebox that actually do something. With what we’ve been able to advance with our Spaceflight launch business, you can actually get those satellites into space.”

Andrews said Spaceflight is aiming to be a comprehensive, full-service company in that effort.

“We’re really trying to address all parts of the value chain by building the satellite components, building the satellites, helping everyone get to space, and now helping them get their data back from space,” he said.

Spaceflight's newest ground station in New Zealand marks another step toward reaching the company's goal of improving communications for smallsat operators. Photo: Spaceflight Industries.

Spaceflight’s newest ground station in New Zealand marks another step toward reaching the company’s goal of improving communications for smallsat operators. Photo: Spaceflight Industries.

Retrieving the data more quickly and efficiently is why Spaceflight is building a network of ground stations. The new one in Invercargill, New Zealand is the company’s third to go operational, following stations in Tukwila, Wash. and Fairbanks, Alaska. Andrews noted that our mobile telephones work most anywhere we go because the gear is standard and speaks the same technical language. It’s not so for spacecraft, which often use custom equipment. Spaceflight wants to change that.

“What we’re doing is building a series of ground stations over the next three years that uses a standard interface protocol,” Andrews explained. The satellites will use standard radios that can connect to the ground stations easily. “Just like a cell phone data plan, we’ll have a satellite data plan.”

While the ultimate number of stations Spaceflight will build is a bit up in the air, Andrews said they plan to have at least a dozen of them in operation around the globe by 2017.

“They’re strategically located geographically to minimize latency—the time between satellites flying over—and that way we can get customer data back quickly,” he explained. As in most businesses, time is money.

Andrews noted that Spaceflight has launched 80 small satellites to date, and has another 86 penciled in to go up next year. He expects customer demand will continue to increase.

“It’s clearly a revolution, and I think just the beginning of the revolution,” he said.

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Simonyi shares space experiences at UW

Your Seattle Astronomy correspondent has at least one thing in common with software executive and billionaire philanthropist Charles Simonyi: neither of us expects to be able to receive spousal clearance for a flight in space. Simonyi has a couple of legs up, having already taken Soyuz flights to and from the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009.

Simonyi spoke about his experiences during a talk titled “Practicalities of Orbital Space Tourism” last week at the University of Washington. It was the first of a series of lectures scheduled this fall celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the university’s Department of Astronomy.

Simonyi

Space tourist Charles Simonyi spoke about his experiences during a lecture Sept. 29, 2015 at the University of Washington. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Simonyi acknowledged that the cost of going into Earth orbit is prohibitive for almost every individual. Speculation is that he shelled out $25 million to go on his 2007 flight and another $35 million to return to the ISS two years later. On top of the financial cost, he spent eight months training for the first flight, learning the spacecraft, studying Russian, and going through a dizzying and often invasive series of medical tests and examinations. His second flight took just three months of training because he already knew a lot.

Would he go again?

“Now I have a family to think about,” Simonyi said, smiling at his wife seated in the second row of the lecture room at Kane Hall.

“I would have to do eight months training again,” he said, because the Russians are using a different spacecraft. “I think I’m getting too old for that. It’s not easy and that would be a big obstacle.”

Still, the draw is great.

“Let’s assume the price didn’t go up, they didn’t require training, my wife lets me go,” he said to laughter. “I would do it!”

Simonyi said a big reason he wanted to fly in space was to support space exploration. Space tourists pumped more than $100 million into the Russian space program at a time that it was strapped for cash. He also did it to popularize science, he said, though interestingly he’s a bit skeptical about sending humans to space to do science because of the enormous cost. The believes simple wanderlust is a great reason to go into orbit.

“A tourist is a very honest broker. The tourist says, ‘Send me to space and I will pay you,'” Simonyi noted. “I think space tourism will be a major factor in promoting space travel because of this self-justifying property that it has.”

Soyuz TMA-14

This Soyuz capsule TMA-14, which took Charles Simonyi to the International Space Station in 2009, is on display at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Some astronauts get a big thrill at the moment of launch into space, but Simonyi found it to be fairly routine to be sitting in the capsule at blastoff.

“It’s not as dramatic as you think from the inside,” he said. “From the outside it’s incredible; I’ve seen it. From the inside it’s like being in an elevator and somebody pushed the button.”

It’s hard to say when space tourism will fall into the price range of those of us whose net worths are less than Simonyi’s $1.4 billion. He noted that these days it costs about $10,000 to send a kilogram of mass into orbit. If the price could be driven down to about $100 per kilogram, then a space tourist might get to orbit for $100,000, which Simonyi called a “reasonable ticket.”

“That’s what the suborbital people are basically pricing their services at,” he noted. “It’s a lot of money, but if it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience I think people would consider it seriously.”

“Those numbers are not here, and they’re not going to be here for quite a while,” Simonyi said. “That is the bad news.”

Further reading:

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The inside story on the Curiosity rover

Rob Manning has been sending things to Mars for 34 years. A Whidbey Island native who was inspired about space by the far-out stories he read in National Geographic and Colliers, Manning is now the Mars Program Engineering Manager for the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab‘s Mars Exploration Program. He gave a talk this month at the Museum of Flight based on his book, Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014).

Rob Manning

Rob Manning, chief engineer for Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory, gave a talk about the rover June 18 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Manning opened his presentation by showing the now-famous video of the JPL crew during the “seven minutes of terror,” the lag between the moment of Curiosity’s landing on Mars and the moment when the team finally learned it had been a success. Engineers were laughing and crying and backslapping. Emotional engineers?

“We were very relieved,” Manning joked, noting that a lot of money had been spent on the mission and many of them had been working on it for many years. “We know how fragile these systems can be even though we put in an enormous amount of work to make them as reliable and sturdy as possible.”

“These are human enterprises,” he continued. “They are not built by institutions, they’re not built by abstract organizations. They’re just a bunch of people working together trying to make sure they didn’t make a mistake.”

NASA lost interest in Mars for a while after the Viking landers found a pretty sterile and hostile environment. Manning’s first mission was Mars Pathfinder, which he jokingly calls “the easy one.”

“One way to get good at something is to start simple,” Manning said, noting that the landing system for Pathfinder, which he called “a brick with wheels,” was even less complicated than that of Viking.

Manning said that each mission teaches lessons, even missions that fail, such as the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander. He said the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are essentially modified Pathfinders. Spirit and Opportunity, roving geologists, confirmed there was once water on Mars. The discovery raised questions that the roving geologists couldn’t answer, but that a roving geochemist could.

“The trouble is roving geochemists have a laboratory with all of this big lab equipment,” Manning said. “So we needed to figure out a way to take the lab equipment, shrink it down, put it in a rover, and send it to Mars.”

That became Curiosity, which Manning said has been doing great work.

“We’ve basically proven that Mars was a wet place, it had oceans, it had seas, it had a lot of water long ago,” he said, adding that early, simple life forms could have been perfectly happy there. Were they? We don’t know yet.

Next up is Mars 2020, which will collect rock and soil samples on Mars for a potential future return to Earth.

“We haven’t had the name-the-rover contest yet,” Manning joked. Its design will essentially be based on Curiosity, though in this case they are going to re-invent the wheels. Curiosity’s wheels have been punctured by sharp rocks that are essentially immovable, locked in place in Martian sediments.

“This is a failure of our imagination,” Manning said. “We had sharp rocks in our Mars yard (where they test out designs on Earth), but they weren’t glued down.” He said 2020’s wheels will be similar, but stronger, and not much heavier.

Manning’s current work is on that mission, and he’s also busy cooking up ways to slow down and land even larger and heavier spacecraft with an eye toward a possible human mission to Mars in the 2030s. Manning said that, because of its thin atmosphere, “Mars is not a very good place to land.”

We expect they’ll come up with a way to do it.

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Big plans for satellite imaging company BlackSky Global

The latest Seattle-based entry into the private space business has announced ambitious plans to offer up “satellite imaging as a service,” selling color photos with one-meter resolution at a significantly lower cost and with far less turnaround time than is presently available in the market. BlackSky Global is aiming to launch two of its Pathfinder imaging satellites in the first quarter of next year and has the funding available to have a total of six of them up in orbit by the end of 2016. BlackSky’s long-term plan is to have a constellation of 60 high-resolution imaging satellites in operation by 2019.

Peter Wegner

Peter Wegner. Photo courtesy BlackSky Global.

“We’re laying out the systems so that we’ll be able to take a picture essentially of anywhere on the planet and send it back to a customer on a timeline measured in minutes, and be able to do that at consumer kind of prices,” said Peter Wegner, chief technology officer for BlackSky. “It really is exciting; it’s something that’s never been possible before.”

The typical buyers of satellite images are governments, corporations, and other large entities working on security, border defense, environmental monitoring, and precision agriculture. Wegner expects those, and more, to be BlackSky customers.

“It’s going to open up all kinds of new markets, too,” he said. “There are a number of firms around the world that use satellite imagery to do analytical predictions of commodities or natural resources, energy. It really is, in some sense, about global market intelligence and feeding the demand to know what’s happening around the world everywhere, all the time, 24-7.”

Eventually it will be a consumer business. You could go onto the BlackSky website and, for a few hundred dollars, order up a photo of your backyard. The one-meter resolution of the images will reveal people or groups of people, but they won’t be identifiable.

BlackSky Pathfinder Spacecraft - Final Integration_Jim Bowes, Technician

Technician Jim Bowes checks out the Pathfinder spacecraft. Photo courtesy BlackSky Global.

“That’s important because there are a lot of concerns about privacy, and we also have those concerns as a company,” Wegner said. “This allows us to provide the capability to monitor what’s happening around your environment, but not get down to the level where it causes a privacy concern.”

BlackSky is an independent company owned by Seattle’s Spaceflight Industries, which specializes in launching small satellites as secondary payloads. We wrote about the firm’s SHERPA payload adapter ring two years ago.

Wegner said Seattle is a great place for BlackSky’s sort of business.

“There seems to be a growing center of gravity for small space companies to move to Seattle,” he said, noting that the mix of aerospace, high-tech, and web expertise is perfect.

“All three of those things are really important for our business, because if you’re going to make this a consumer-level product, you need the web-scale business experience, you need the big data experience, and you need the aerospace experience, which all fits uniquely where we are in this area.”

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One-sided race to the Moon nearly derailed

It’s a popular narrative that the race to land a man on the Moon in the 1960s was launched by President John F. Kennedy in a speech to Congress in May of 1961, and was a gung-ho, nonstop effort until the goal was achieved in 1969. In fact, the space policy expert Dr. John M. Logsdon says the whole thing was nearly undone in 1963.

John Logsdon

Space policy expert Dr. John Logsdon spoke June 13 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Logsdon is the founder and longtime director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University and author of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and After Apollo?: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He gave a talk titled, “John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and the American Space Program” last weekend at the Museum of Flight.

Logsdon pointed out some interesting contrasts between the two presidents. Richard Nixon was an early space booster, arguing for a civilian space agency when he was Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower. Some historians think of Nixon as the father of NASA. Meanwhile Kennedy didn’t have much interest in space until the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April of 1961. This got Kennedy’s attention, and he gave his advisors the task of coming up with a space effort that the United States could win. Their answer was landing on the Moon, and that became Kennedy’s goal.

“It had very little to do with a view of humanity’s future in space or some romantic image of the space frontier,” Logsdon explained. “This was a Cold War, deliberate act of competition, seeing space as an area to demonstrate which social system, which governmental system was superior.”

Ramping up space spending

“Kennedy not only talked the talk, but he backed up his rhetoric with commitment,” Logsdon added. “This was a war-like mobilization of human and financial resources.”

Indeed, the NASA budget nearly doubled the first year and more than doubled again the second, and the skyrocketing cost came under considerable criticism. Kennedy was sensitive to this for a couple of reasons. He was concerned about the political impact of the Apollo program losing support, and worried that spending on space could be a negative in his 1964 re-election campaign. There was some talk of cutting the budget or relaxing the end-of-decade timeline for the goal. Kennedy also spoke openly of making the quest for a Moon a cooperative venture with the Soviet Union. Logsdon said that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev originally expressed some interest in the idea, but was talked out of it by advisors worried that cooperation would reveal that the Russians really didn’t have lunar launch capability.

The one-sided race

“The United States was racing only itself,” Logsdon said of that lack of capability. “The Soviet Union, as of September of 1963, didn’t have a lunar program” and, in fact, didn’t decide to try until 1964.

“It was not reality as long as Kennedy was president. It became reality by the end of the decade,” Logsdon said.

Kennedy visited the launch center in Florida on Nov. 16, 1963 and was impressed by the rockets and the facilities.

“This visit excited Kennedy,” Logsdon said. “He came away from the visit full of regained enthusiasm for the program.”

On Nov. 21 Kennedy made a speech in San Antonio in which he said that the conquest of space must and will go ahead. He was assassinated the next day, and that ended any possibility that Apollo would be scrubbed. It became a memorial to the fallen president. Logsdon said it is interesting to speculate about what might have happened if JFK had lived or if Khrushchev had said “yes” to collaboration.

Logsdon said he doesn’t see Kennedy as a visionary in terms of humanity’s future in space.

“He was rather a pragmatic politician that saw a leadership-oriented space program as in the national interest in the particular situation of the early 1960s. He chose the lunar landing as a way of demonstrating the capabilities of this country,” Logsdon said.

Nixon and Apollo

Nixon was sworn in as president six months to the day before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon with Apollo 11.

“Unlike Kennedy, who saw space in geopolitical and foreign policy terms, Nixon viewed the space program as an issue of domestic politics: of technology, of innovation, of job creation, of something that is part of what the government does to stimulate society,” Logsdon said.

He contends that Nixon made three key decisions about space. He didn’t set a grand goal like going to the Moon or Mars. He opted to treat space exploration as just another one of the things that government does, nothing special. And his administration approved the space shuttle, though Logsdon said they chose to, “build a program around the shuttle without a long-term goal for the shuttle to serve.”

Logsdon said there may have been some wisdom there. A big goal, and an accompanying big budget, could have been a target, while a small, sustainable space program didn’t attract much opposition.

“Nixon was totally convinced of the importance of human spaceflight and of keeping astronauts in orbit, and that human spaceflight was essential to a U.S. leadership position,” Logsdon said. “He was intrigued by the various national security uses of the shuttle, which never happened.”

Naturally, electoral politics entered into it as well. The shuttle program created jobs in California, and Nixon needed to win California to gain re-election.

Logsdon is an engaging speaker and used a lot of video and audio clips in his presentation. His books are worth a look for anyone interested in the history of the space program. To buy the books click the links or book covers above, or visit the Seattle Astronomy Store.

More reading:

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