Category Archives: space

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.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

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.”

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

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:

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

White spots on Ceres may be salt

The first big surprise as the Dawn spacecraft was approaching the dwarf planet Ceres earlier this year were bright white spots on its surface. Now that Dawn has been orbiting Ceres for six weeks, a theory has emerged about what the spots are: salt.

Dr. Tom McCord, a planetary physicist who is co-investigator on the Dawn mission, spoke about the exploration of Ceres Saturday during an astronomy day event at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Dr. Tom McCord, a planetary physicist who is co-investigator on the Dawn mission, spoke about the exploration of Ceres Saturday during an Astronomy Day event at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Dr. Tom McCord, a co-investigator on the Dawn mission and director of the Bear Fight Institute, a research organization based in Winthrop, Wash., spoke at an Astronomy Day event Saturday at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Here’s why he thinks the spots could be salt.

McCord explained that Ceres is differentiated: it has a rocky core, a water-ice mantle layer, and a dirty crust. He noted that they’ve learned a lot from the early photographs.

“There’s a lot of evidence of activity; many craters, an older surface, but not as old as the object, so something obliterated the craters from early on,” McCord said. “Distorted features, so the surface had to have been warped.”

“There are domes, things pushing out from the inside,” he continued, “and bright spots that suggest that material from inside has come to the surface in some sort of volcanism.”

In addition, McCord explained that ground-based telescopes have detected water vapor that comes and goes in the area of Ceres. Liquid water from the interior of Ceres may be being ejected to the surface, where it wouldn’t last long.

Ceres

This image was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of dwarf planet Ceres on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). It shows that the brightest spot on Ceres has a dimmer companion, which apparently lies in the same basin. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

“What that would do is leave a residual salt deposit, so these bright spots could be salt deposits that accumulated around vents—volcanos—where the water is coming through,” McCord speculated.

He stresses that the work on data from Ceres is still in its early phases, joking that, “We scientists don’t know entirely what we are seeing.”

McCord said the evidence of geological activity has been the most interesting finding so far at Ceres.

“It has been active and may well still be active today,” he said. “That’s exciting to a physicist because you really want to know whether these processes that you conjure up in your models really have happened and, we hope to learn, to what extent and over what time scale.”

Ceres is a great target for study because it may hold clues to how planets form. It is the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system and is the largest object in the asteroid belt. With a diameter of 590 miles, it’s about as big as Texas.

“This is a very large small planet,” McCord said. Ceres comprises about a third of the mass of all objects in the asteroid belt.

The Dawn spacecraft is unique, according to McCord.

“It is the only interplanetary spacecraft that uses ion propulsion, and that is the only reason we are able to orbit two different objects in the outer solar system and still have enough fuel to go on,” he said. Dawn launched in 2007 and studied the asteroid Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012 before heading to Ceres.

“Dawn is really a pathfinder for this kind of multiple-object extended exploration,” McCord said.

Dawn will be collecting data at Ceres for another year to 18 months. McCord said the spacecraft has four momentum wheels and needs three of them to hold itself in stable position. However two of the wheels have failed, so mission scientists are using the craft’s thrusters as a substitute. The hydrazine fuel will eventually run out, and Dawn will tumble about in a stable orbit around Ceres for a long, long time.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

Space policy dean, Curiosity engineer to speak in June at Museum of Flight

Our copy of Aloft, the member magazine of the Museum of Flight, arrived in the mail today bearing news of two interesting space talks planned for the museum in June.

John M. Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute and considered by many to be the dean of U.S. space policy, will discuss his new book, After Apollo?: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program. The book is part of the series of Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology. In it, Logsdon takes a look at how President Nixon and his administration impacted post-Apollo space policy. Logsdon gave something of a preview of his presentation here in Seattle at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January. You can read our coverage of that talk to learn that Logsdon doesn’t think very highly of Nixon’s approach. Logsdon is scheduled to speak at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 13, 2015 in the William M. Allen Theater at the museum.

The following weekend Rob Manning will be in town to tout his aptly titled book, Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014). Manning, who is indeed the chief engineer for the mission, will discuss the challenges of getting such a large and complicated robot safely to Mars to conduct science. Manning’s talk, also in the Allen Theater, will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 20.

You can pick up copies of the books by clicking the links or cover photos above, or by visiting the Seattle Astronomy Store. Keep track of any schedule changes by watching the Museum of Flight website. These events are so new that, as of this writing, they weren’t yet listed on the museum’s online calendar. We’re planning to cover both talks.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

New documentary series takes a look at private space

Private space exploration is a relatively new and booming industry, and a small company out of Santa Monica, California is launching an ambitious effort to create a series of short documentary videos exploring the political, legal, and social implications of the industry.

Private Space has produced three episodes so far, and is hoping to raise at least $10,000 through a Kickstarter campaign in order to produce nine more over the next year.

Tamir ElSahy

Tamir ElSahy is the writer and director for the documentary series Private Space.

Tamir ElSahy, the writer and director of the Private Space series, which is hosted on YouTube, says it started as a passion project and creative outlet for him. ElSahy is genuinely interested in the topic.

“The world has a lot of stories to tell and this just seemed like an interesting one,” he says. Beyond just telling a good story, ElSahy aims to provide useful information for an informed public. The series will orbit around three main topics: the entrepreneurs who propel the private space industry, the public officials who influence it, and the citizen scientists who are contributing in significant ways to the research and exploration of space.

“Our hope is to highlight a story in each episode from one of these themes to help us take a more holistic approach to breaking down what the developments are and how they’ll impact people’s lives,” ElSahy says.

“I don’t want to just rehash what happened,” he adds. “I want to make sure that we’re there to explain and break down what’s going on, the complicated issues, and simplify them for the online audience.”

Early episodes have featured California state senator Steve Knight, who authored the state’s Space Flight Liability and Immunity Act; Dr. Lee Valentine, chairman of the Space Studies Institute and an early investor in XCOR; and Adam Block, renowned astrophotographer whose work is frequently featured on the popular Astronomy Picture of the Day website. The shows are well done; check them out on the Private Space YouTube channel.

As of this writing the Kickstarter effort has raised more than $1,600 from 33 backers. ElSahy says the funds raised will help him and his crew, “go to New Mexico, to Texas, to Washington D.C., to Seattle, to all the places that have buzzing activity regarding the industry and get some insight wherever we can.”

Seattle Astronomy wishes Private Space and ElSahy best of luck with their efforts. You can view the trailer for their Kickstarter campaign below.

More information

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare

An evening with famed comet hunter Don Machholz

In an age when automated programs are scanning the night sky using high-tech telescopes, CCD cameras, and computing power to find near-Earth objects, Don Machholz continues to search for comets the old-fashioned way.

“I do it visually,” Machholz explained at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society last month. “I do not use cameras, I do not use CCDs. I look through the eyepiece and I push the telescope.”

Scheiderer and Machholz

Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer, left, with comet hunter Don Machholz at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s annual banquet. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Machholz is the record holder, with eleven comets discovered visually since he started his hunt in the mid-1970s. That doesn’t sound like so many, but consider this: according to the Catalog of Comet Discoveries, there have been 1,502 comets discovered since 2005. Of those, just three have been discovered visually. The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) got full or shared credit for thirty-three comet discoveries last year alone. The last time a comet was discovered visually was in 2010, when there were two, and Machholz bagged one of those.

There’s a little bit of luck involved in comet hunting. Machholz jokes that the first thing you need to do to find a comet is to be looking where it is in the 40,000 square degrees of sky. But he has a system. He checks websites to figure out where the programs like Pan-STARRS are looking on a particular night and then conducts his hunt in a different part of the sky. Machholz divides the sky into sections, and makes telescope sweeps covering about fifteen degrees at a time. Then moves down about a half field of view and sweeps again. He keeps meticulous records of his searches.

“It sounds boring, but you get to see a different part of the sky all the time,” Machholz said.

He got interested in astronomy as a boy. His father was a naval navigator and had a book with star charts that Don used to learn the sky. When he was about eight years old his sister brought home a book about meteors that piqued his interest. Finally, Machholz received a telescope for his thirteenth birthday. On the third night out he found Saturn.

“I could see the rings on it,” he recalled, thinking stargazing might not be such a bad hobby. He was hooked.

A family tragedy helped drive Machholz’s comet-hunting program early on. In 1976 his brother, an avid skier, was killed in an avalanche. Machholz found himself depressed, with insomnia, sleeping just a few hours a night, but with lots of energy.

“That’s kind of the ideal ingredients for a comet hunter,” he said. “For the next three or four years my comet hunting program developed to a greater and greater depth. Comet hunting wasn’t just something I did, it became part of who I am.”

His early comet hunting was done from his parents’ back yard and other locations around Concord, California. After moving to San Jose in 1976 he did much of his observing from nearby Loma Prieta mountain. In 1990 he moved to Colfax, California and built an observatory there.

After so much time at the eyepiece, Machholz says his heart still skips a beat or two when he thinks he has found a new comet.

“It’s a very important moment,” he said. “First I want to remember what song was on the radio.” He always has the radio playing when he hunts, and his presentation was full of music from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles to Phil Collins and Cyndi Lauper. He adds, though, that there’s no time for jumping up and down when he finds a comet, because there’s serious work to do.

“You don’t want to lose it,” he explained. “You might have it in the field now, but if you bump the telescope or let too much time go by and it drifts out of the field, you have to be able to find it again.”

“You have to be sure you know where you’re looking, make sure it’s not a galaxy or a cluster,” he added. He double checks with his star atlas, makes a drawing that puts the comet in its position compared to the field of stars, and watches to see if it moves. If all that checks out he reports the discovery by email, phone, and fax.

96/P Machholz

Comet 96/P Machholz as seen by the HI-2 camera on the STEREO-A spacecraft.

Of all of his discoveries, Machholz said comet is 96P/Machholz is his favorite.

“It is an amazing comet; it has its own Facebook page,” he said.

The orbit of 96/P Machholz changes because of the influence of Jupiter, and the perturbations have some scientists thinking there may be large undiscovered planets way out beyond Pluto. The comet also is low on carbon and cyanogen. This hasn’t been explained, though the leading ideas are that it may have originated in another solar system, or been exposed to temperature extremes that changed its chemical composition.

It was a pleasure to spend an evening with Don Machholz. His lively presentation was full of humor and had the banquet audience laughing and engaged.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+EvernoteShare