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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

This Week in Satellite News! (Jul 24 – Jul 31 2015)


SpaceShipTwo - Catastrophic Failure Moment | Video

The NTSB has released video showing several angles of the doomed SpaceShipTwo flight, from initial separation from the White Knight carrier aircraft to the moment when the ‘feather’ was manually unlocked, too early in the flight, causing the accident.


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NASA's Curiosity Rover Eyes Weird Rock On Mars

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity went out of its way to investigate a rock the likes of which it has never seen before on the Red Planet.

Measurements by Curiosity's rock-zapping ChemCam laser and another instrument revealed that the target, a chunk of bedrock dubbed Elk, contains high levels of silica and hydrogen, NASA officials said.

The abundance of silica — a silicon-oxygen compound commonly found here on Earth in the form of quartz — suggests that the bedrock may provide conditions conducive to the preservation of ancient carbon-containing organic molecules, if any exist in the area, the officials added. So Curiosity's handlers sent the rover back 151 feet (46 meters) to check Elk out.

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Gobbling Up Space Debris: A Pac-Man Approach Proposed

A team of engineers has been at work for the past three years to develop a space cleanup satellite. The intent is to eliminate threatening, human-made orbital debris.

The worry is not new – there's lots of clutter to pick and choose from, be it broken down satellites to tossed away rocket stages.

A new entry to de-litter Earth orbit is the Clean Space One project, spearheaded by researchers from eSpace, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne's (EPFL) Center for Space Engineering and Signal Processing 5 Laboratory and HES-SO University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland.

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Ban Killer Robots Before They Take Over, Stephen Hawking & Elon Musk Say

A global arms race to make artificial-intelligence-based autonomous weapons is almost sure to occur unless nations can ban the development of such weapons, several scientists warn.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, physicist Stephen Hawking and other tech luminaries have signed an open letter warning against the dangers of starting a global arms race of artificial intelligence (AI) technology unless the United Nations supports a ban on weapons that humans "have no meaningful control over."

The letter, which was issued by the Future of Life organization, is being presented today (July 27) at the International Joint Conference On Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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NASA's Wild 'Windbot' Concept Aims to Sail in Jupiter's Sky

NASA is looking into a wild idea to explore the atmosphere of Jupiter or other gas giants using a robotic spacecraft designed to sail across extraterrestrial skies.

The so-called "windbot" is the brainchild of engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and represents a potentially new class of robotic spacecraft -- one that could remain airborne in a planet's atmosphere without the need for wings or a hot-air balloon. The high-tech concept has received $100,000 in funding from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which "nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions," according to a program description

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Pentagon IG Finds Evidence of ITAR Violations at NASA Ames

WASHINGTON — Foreign nationals did indeed have access to restricted defense technology at NASA’s Ames Research Center in 2008 and 2009, but it is impossible to tell if they shared technical details about that technology with anyone overseas, the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General reported July 13.

The IG’s investigation, ordered by Congress in a report accompanying a 2015 defense authorization bill, is the latest development in an export-control flap at the Mountain View, California, field center dating back to 2013, when a whistleblower whose identity has never been confirmed touched off a congressional inquiry over the possible transfer of classified military technology at Ames.

This Divert Attitude Control System thruster Credit: NASA

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Report Says Commercial Partnerships Can Slash Costs of Human Lunar Missions

WASHINGTON — A new report concludes that public-private partnerships, like those NASA has used in its commercial cargo and crew programs, could return humans to the moon for as little as $10 billion and within seven years.

The 100-page study, funded by NASA, concluded that an “evolvable lunar architecture” could eventually lead to a permanent human base at the lunar poles to convert water ice there for propellant that could be sold to NASA or other customers. However, those involved in the study acknowledge that the biggest obstacle to this approach may be convincing policymakers of the plan’s effectiveness.

Artist's concept of lunar base. Credit: Alliance for Space Development

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Safety Panel Commends NASA For ISS Cargo Planning

WASHINGTON — Members of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) said the agency has done a good job dealing with the loss of three cargo missions to the International Space Station in eight months.

“The cumulative effect of the three cargo mission losses are, in our opinion, significant, but the ISS program was well positioned to mitigate the impacts,” said ASAP member Brent Jett, a former astronaut, at a July 23 meeting of the panel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.

ISS cargo

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Ruling Expected this Fall in Sea Launch Case

PARIS — A U.S. District Court is expected to rule early this fall whether Boeing’s attempt to collect $356 million from its Russian and Ukrainian former partners in the Sea Launch commercial-launch company is an open-and-shut case of contract breach or something more complicated, as the defendants claim.

Chicago-based Boeing has consistently argued – and did so again in a July 22 filling with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission – that its former partners, Yuzhnoye and YuzshMash of Ukraine and RSC Energia of Russia, signed documents committing them to a pro rata responsibility for the Sea Launch financing that was advanced by Boeing.

Frustrated in its attempts at having the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce rule on the case as arbiter, Boeing in February 2013 turned to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Sea Launch lofts rockets from a floating platform in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: Sea Launch

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

This Week in Satellite News! (Jul 17 – Jul 24 2015)


Blast Off! New ISS Crew Launches After 2 Month Delay | Video

NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Kimiya Yui launched aboard from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 22nd, 2015. They were originally scheduled to launch in May but were pushed back after the failure of the Progress 59 cargo mission.


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NASA Finds Closest Earth Twin Yet in Haul of 500 Alien Planets

It may not be Earth's exact twin, but it's a pretty close cousin.

NASA's Kepler space telescope has spotted the most Earth-like alien planet yet discovered — a world called Kepler-452b that's just slightly bigger than our own and orbits a sunlike star at about the same distance Earth circles the sun.

"This is the first possibly rocky, habitable planet around a solar-type star," Jeff Coughlin, Kepler research scientist at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, California, said during a news briefing today (July 23).

"We've gotten closer and closer to finding a true twin like the Earth," Coughlin added. "We haven't found it yet, but every step is important because it shows we're getting closer and closer. And this current planet, 452b, is really the closest yet."

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SpaceX 'Complacent' Before Rocket Explosion, Elon Musk Says

The explosion of a SpaceX rocket during a space station resupply mission last month jolted the company awake in some ways, CEO and founder Elon Musk said.

Prior to the June 28 Falcon 9 rocket explosion — which ended the company's seventh robotic cargo mission to the International Space Station less than 3 minutes after it blasted off — SpaceX had enjoyed a string of 20 straight successful launches over a seven-year stretch.

To some degree, I think the company became maybe a little bit complacent," Musk told reporters Monday (July 20) during a teleconference that discussed the probable cause of the mishap. "I think this is certainly an important lesson, and something we're going to take with us into the future."

SpaceX's Falcon 9 disaster

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Stephen Hawking: Intelligent Aliens Could Destroy Humanity, But Let's Search Anyway

This week, famed physicist Stephen Hawking helped launch a major new effort to search for signs of intelligent alien life in the cosmos, even though he thinks it's likely that such creatures would try to destroy humanity. 

Since at least 2010, Hawking has spoken publicly about his fears that an advanced alien civilization would have no problem wiping out the human race the way a human might wipe out a colony of ants. At the media event announcing the new project, he noted that human beings have a terrible history of mistreating, and even massacring, other human cultures that are less technologically advanced — why would an alien civilization be any different? 

Hawking Supports Search for Intelligent Life, Despite Fears of Destruction

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109 Percent Power! SLS Rocket Engine Test-Fired For 535 Seconds | Video

The NASA Space Launch System's RS-25 engine was test fired at NASA's Stennis Space Center on July 17th, 2015. The engine was tested at several power levels, "including a period of firing at 109 percent of the engine’s rated power," according to NASA. (Assembling a 40 Year-Old Rocket Engine Design | Time-Lapse Video)

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NASA Developing Solar-sailing Cubesats for Inaugural SLS Launch

WASHINGTON — NASA is developing a pair of solar-sailing, science-collecting cubesats that will hitch a ride on the Space Launch System’s inaugural July 2018 launch.

The two spacecraft, currently envisioned as six-unit cubesats with deployable solar sails, will travel beyond low Earth orbit to conduct scientific observations of an asteroid and the moon.

NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout, cubesat will conduct a 2020 flyby of asteroid 1991 VG to determine its size, movement and chemical composition.

Artist's concept of NEA Scout, one of the two confirmed solar-sailing cubesats to be launched by SLS in 2018. Credit: NASA

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ESA Makes Research Investment in Next-generation Inmarsat System

LIVERPOOL, England – The European Space Agency, continuing in its relatively new role as pollinator of near-term satellite telecommunications technology, on July 16 contracted with Inmarsat to conduct research on a next-generation Inmarsat mobile communications system.

London-based Inmarsat said the work would include a broad overview of what would be an Inmarsat-6 generation of services, including low-orbiting satellite constellations, inter-satellite laser-optical communications and laser communications between satellites and platforms.

Coming only weeks after the 22-nation ESA signed cost-sharing agreements for new-generation satellite telecommunications technologies with Eutelsat of Paris and – in a first – Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington. ESA also signed a separate accord with Inmarsat on improved air traffic management.

Alphasat is a large telecommunications satellite primarily designed to expand Inmarsat’s existing global mobile telecommunication network. It was engineered and built by Astrium through a public–private partnership (PPP) between ESA and Inmarsat.<br /><br />It is the largest European telecom satellite ever built, exceeding 6.6 tonnes at launch. Its solar array, spanning almost 40 m, generates more than 12 kW of power.<br /><br />Alphasat is based on Alphabus, the new European telecom platform developed by Astrium and Thales Alenia Space under a joint contract with ESA and France’s CNES space agency. Credit: ESA

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7 More USAF Weather Satellites at Risk of Explosion

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has seven aging Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) spacecraft in orbit that are susceptible to the kind of explosive battery rupture that destroyed the 20-year-old  DMSP-F13  in February, producing more than 100 trackable pieces of orbital debris.

Of those seven satellites, only one — DMSP-F14 — is still in service. But all seven have the same kind of battery charger that an Air Force review released July 20 identified as the likely cause of the DMSP-F13 incident.


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Philae’s Comm Problem has Lander’s Operators Concerned

PARIS — Europe’s Philae lander, riding Comet 67P as it heats up and spews off increasing amounts of gas and dust as it approaches the sun, has likely changed position or suffered transmitter failure, raising concern over whether it will be able to communicate again, the lander’s control center said July 20.

Philae last reported in July 9 and since then has been unable to maintain stable, predictable communications lines. As it closes in on its Aug. 13 perihelion — its closest approach to the sun – the comet’s outgassing turns its surface into a more dangerous spot for a fragile lander whose purchase on the surface was never secure in the first place.

Just as important, the Rosetta orbiter that relays Philae data to the Earth cannot maintain its close orbit to scan for Philae signals because that puts Rosetta at risk of being blinded by the same outgassing.


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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

This Week in Satellite News! (Jul 10 – Jul 17 2015)


New Horizons Probe's July 14 Pluto Flyby: Complete Coverage

NASA's New Horizons probe is about to lift the veil on Pluto. On July 14, New Horizons will perform the first-ever flyby of the faraway dwarf planet, zooming within 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) of its frigid surface. The close encounter will give researchers their first up-close looks at Pluto, which has remained mysterious since its 1930 discovery. LATEST VIDEO: Pluto Is Unexpectedly Large - New Horizons Mission

Update for 11 a.m. ET, Wednesday, July 15: Today's the day. After more than 3 billion miles and nine years of travel by the New Horizons spacecraft, NASA will unveil the most amazing images of Pluto ever taken in a webcast at 3 p.m. EDT today (1900 GMT). Here's our latest story: Amazing Pluto Flyby Images to Be Unveiled Today  / You can watch the webcast live here

New Horizons will continue beaming flyby data home for months afterward, and it may cruise past a second distant object in 2019, if NASA approves and funds a proposed mission extension.'s complete coverage of New Horizons' epic Pluto flyby appears below:


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'We Explore Because We Are Human': Stephen Hawking on Pluto Flyby

In a message from one icon of science to another, physicist Stephen Hawking posted a video message to Facebook this morning (July 14) congratulating the New Horizons team on the spacecraft's close flyby of Pluto.

Scientists, engineers and space enthusiasts around the world watched as NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, after a nine-and-a-half-year journey, raced past Pluto today at 7:49 a.m. EDT (1149 GMT). Among the spacecraft's many admirers is theoretical physicist and scientific celebrity Stephen Hawking.

"The revelations of New Horizons may help us to understand better how our solar system was formed," Hawking said in the video message (watch it below). "We explore because we are human, and we want to know. I hope that Pluto will help us on that journey."

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Philae Comet Lander Reawakens, Phones Home

PARIS — Europe’s Philae comet lander, which for unexplained reasons had been silent since June 24, reawakened July 9 for a nearly uninterrupted period of about 20 minutes, sending signals through the Rosetta orbiter, the French and German space agencies said July 10.

The communications raised hopes that stable links between Philae and Rosetta, and then to ground controllers, would be established in time to allow the lander to provide data as Comet 67P makes its closest approach to the sun on Aug. 12-13.

Ground teams had sent commands to Philae that it switch on its CONSERT instrument, the Comet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radio Wave Transmission, which is designed to take soundings of the comet interior to derive its composition.

Photo of Philae's landing site with a sketch of the lander superimposed to show its orientation. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

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Gogo Pushes New Tech for Aircraft Broadband

PARIS — Airline broadband connectivity provider Gogo Inc. said it looked at the Ku- and Ka-band product offerings of SES, Intelsat, ViaSat, Hughes, Inmarsat and others before deciding to launch its own proprietary 2Ku product, to be introduced commercially this year.

Chicago-based Gogo has contracted for capacity aboard Intelsat and SES satellites to introduce 2Ku, first on a Gogo-owned Boeing 737 test plane and then commercially later this year.

Gogo said it has more than 500 aircraft in various stages of being fitted with 2Ku antennas. In a June 25 presentations to investors, Gogo managers said that while they wait for the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to issue rules on the allocation of the 14-gigahertz section of spectrum, they are pushing ahead with 2Ku worldwide.

2Ku antennas

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As SpaceX Investigates Falcon 9 Failure, NASA Downplays Effect on Space Station

WASHINGTON — While SpaceX struggles to determine the cause of a failure of its Falcon 9 rocket, NASA managers and other users of the International Space Station say the loss of the cargo on the Dragon spacecraft on that rocket should not have a major effect on station operations.

The Falcon 9 v1.1 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 10:21 a.m. Eastern time June 28, carrying a Dragon spacecraft with more than 2 tons of cargo for the ISS. SpaceX reported no technical issues during the countdown, and weather conditions were excellent at the time of liftoff.

The first evidence of a problem could be seen two minutes and 19 seconds after liftoff, as a white cloud expanded from the Falcon 9’s upper stage even as the rocket’s first stage engines continued to fire. The rocket was soon enveloped in the cloud and, within 10 seconds, broke apart.

Elon Musk and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden inspect the Dragon capsule after it had returned from its first mission to the ISS in 2013. Credit: NASA, Bill Ingalls

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Planet Labs Buying BlackBridge and its RapidEye Constellation

WASHINGTON — Planet Labs, seeking to accelerate its growth in the Earth observation market, announced July 15 that it is acquiring BlackBridge and its RapidEye constellation of satellites.

Planet Labs, headquartered in San Francisco, said it will acquire Berlin-based BlackBridge and its core assets, including the five-satellite RapidEye system of medium-resolution imaging satellites launched in 2008. The companies declined to disclose the terms of the deal.

In an interview, Planet Labs Chief Executive Will Marshall said that the acquisition was a strategic effort by the company to expand by tapping into the business partnerships BlackBridge has, as well as the company’s large archive of imagery.

Planet Labs ISS deployment

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Wild Milky Way Map Reveals Hidden Loops of Multicolored Microwaves

Currents of bold color swirling in the image above look like an impressionist's painting, but are actually a map of microwaves emanating from the Milky Way galaxy.

This vivid snapshot captures light radiating outward as charged particles zip through in the galaxy's magnetic fields. The low-energy light waves also reveal the presence of a ring of dust that cordons off a third of the sky.

This new microwave map of the galaxy comes from the European Space Agency's Planck satellite, which launched in 2009 to measure the microwave light left over from the Big Bang.

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SPOT Now Offers Pan-African Satellite Coverage

COVINGTON, LA (June 25, 2015)Globalstar, Inc. (NYSE MKT: GSAT) today announced that its gateway in Gaborone, Botswana has gone live, enabling Globalstar and its subsidiary, SPOT LLC, to deliver affordable simplex coverage over the African continent.

This new gateway, in partnership with Broadband Botswana Internet (BBi), provides Globalstar’s full line of simplex services, including its SPOT portfolio of affordable personal tracking and life-saving products and services.

Affordable Tracking and Safety Devices Now Available to Adventurers Across Africa


  • Globalstar now offers SPOT coverage across Africa with the activation of its newest gateway in Gaborone, Botswana
  • To date, SPOT devices have helped to initiative over 3,500 rescues worldwide
  • Outdoor enthusiasts, adventurers and remote workers can now use the affordable SPOT Gen3® safety device across the continent to stay connected with colleagues, friends and family and if needed, emergency responders

Read the full story here

Friday, July 10, 2015

This Week in Satellite News! (Jul 3 – Jul 10 2015)


NASA Selects Astronauts For Commercial Crew Test Flights

BOSTON — NASA announced July 9 it has selected four veteran astronauts to train for test flights on commercial crew vehicles under development by Boeing and SpaceX.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement that astronauts Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams will start training for the initial test flights of Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon crew spacecraft, currently scheduled for 2017.

All four astronauts are veterans of the shuttle program, serving as mission specialists or pilots. Williams flew two long-duration missions on the International Space Station, including one where she traveled to and from the station on Soyuz vehicles. Behnken was, until recently, chief of NASA’s astronaut office.

NASA commercial crew astronauts

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Musk Says Communications Satellite Constellation Still in Early Stages

BOSTON — Despite a wave of funding and contract announcements by competitor OneWeb, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said July 7 that his company is still taking a “careful” approach to plans for a communications satellite constellation.

“A lot of companies have tried it and broken their pick on it,” Musk said in response to an audience question during an appearance at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference here. “We want to be really careful about how we make this thing work, and not overextend ourselves.”

Musk revealed SpaceX’s interest in a communications satellite constellation in January, saying the company planned to develop a system of 4,000 satellites in low Earth orbit to provide broadband Internet access. Those satellites would be designed, and perhaps built, at a commercial satellite development center the company established in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, Washington.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, speaking July 7, 2015 at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference. Credit: CASIS video still

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Space Station Crosses Moon's Face in Stunning New Photo

An amazing new photograph shows the International Space Station (ISS) crossing in front of the bright and seemingly enormous moon.

We're used to seeing images taken from the space station — astronauts often post them on social media — but photos of the orbiting lab from Earth are rarer and take much more preparation. 

Amateur astrophotographer Dylan O'Donnell took the stunning photo on June 30 from Byron Bay in New South Wales, Australia, using a Canon 70D camera attached to the rear cell of a Celestron 9.25-inch (235-millimeter) telescope. 

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SpaceX Looms Large as ESA Readies Ariane 6 Contract

PARIS—The head of the European Space Agency’s launcher directorate on July 7 issued a surprising endorsement of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during a French parliamentary hearing that was ostensibly about the status of Europe’s next-generation Ariane 6 vehicle.

Gaele Winters, who is expected to ask ESA’s check-writing body on July 16 to approve a nearly $3 billion contract with Airbus Safran Launchers to develop Ariane 6, said the June 28 Falcon 9 failure in no way changes ESA’s assessment of SpaceX.

“We have seen the outstanding success of Falcon 9,” Winters said. “Despite the issue of about a week ago, it is a fantastic track record for this launcher.”

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Musk: No Clear Explanation Yet for Falcon 9 Failure

BOSTON — The ongoing investigation into the June 28 Falcon 9 launch failure has yet to find a cause for the accident based on the available data, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said July 7.

Musk, speaking at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference here, said that the destruction of the vehicle nearly two and a half minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral did not appear to have a straightforward cause, and that the data the company had was difficult to interpret.

“Whatever happened is clearly not a sort of simple, straightforward thing,” he said in his most extensive public comments to date on the launch failure. “There’s still no clear theory that fits with all the data.”

Musk and Suffredini

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Mars Rover Curiosity Dealing with Wheel Damage

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity faces ongoing wheel wear and tear as it continues its trek across the rock-strewn red planet.

The car-size Curiosity rover has been on duty since landing on Mars in August 2012. Curiosity has six aluminum wheels, each with its own individual motor. The rover has a top speed on flat, hard ground of a little over 4 centimeters per second.

But dealing with the rocky Martian landscape has become somewhat of an unanticipated wheel of misfortune for the Curiosity crew. Back here on Earth, mission engineers are watching the wheels turn, keeping an eye on the dings and cracks that have begun to appear.

Curiosity rover made use of its Mastcam: Left camera on April 21, 2015 to photograph the rover's damaged wheel. Curiosity has six independently driven wheels. Credit: NASA

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New Horizons Back on Track for Pluto Flyby

WASHINGTON — NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has exited a protective safe mode that project officials said July 6 was triggered when the spacecraft’s primary computer became overloaded.

New Horizons, which entered safe mode July 4, briefly cutting off communications with the Earth, will resume normal science observations on July 7, and the project’s leadership said they remain confident the spacecraft will operate normally through its July 14 flyby of Pluto.

“The spacecraft is in excellent health and is back in operation,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, during a conference call with reporters July 6.

new horizons

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Progress Arrives At Space Station, Easing Supply Concerns

WASHINGTON — A Russian Progress cargo spacecraft docked with the International Space Station early July 5, easing concerns about supplying the station after a string of recent cargo mission failures.

The Progress M-28M, on a mission designated Progress 60 by NASA, docked with the Pirs module of the ISS at 3:11 a.m. Eastern time July 5. The spacecraft launched on a Soyuz rocket early July 3 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The spacecraft brought to the station a total of 2,769 kilograms of cargo for the station. That total includes 1,421 kilograms of supplies and equipment, 880 kilograms of propellant, 420 kilograms of water, and 48 kilograms of oxygen.


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Ariane 5 Launch Rescheduled for July 15

PARIS — Officials with the Arianespace launch consortium said July 6 that oil contamination concerns that postponed the launch of a European weather satellite and a Brazilian telecommunications satellite aboard an Ariane 5 rocket had been resolved and that the mission is now scheduled for July 15.

The launch of the MSG-4 and Star One C4 satellites had been scheduled for July 8 but was postponed after oil was spotted on the rocket’s fairing.

Evry, France-based Arianespace initially declined to specify the cause of the delay, saying only that “additional checks as part of the preparation of [the] mission” were needed before proceeding with the launch.

A 2011 file photo of an Ariane 5 rocket rolling out to the launch pad. Credit: Arianespace

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Friday, July 3, 2015

This Week in Satellite News! (Jun 26 – Jul 3 2015)


UPDATED | SpaceX Falcon 9 Fails During ISS Cargo Launch

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket suffered a failure more than two minutes after liftoff June 28 on a mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, an accident that may have repercussions on both space station operations and the debate about funding for NASA’s commercial crew program.

The Falcon 9 lifted off on schedule at 10:21 a.m. EDT Sunday after a problem-free countdown, and in good weather conditions. The launch appeared to be going well until a little more than two minutes after liftoff, when the first stage plume became irregular and, seconds later, the rocket appeared to disintegrate.

“The first stage flight was successful until 139 seconds into that flight. We experienced an anomaly that led to the failure of the mission,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said at a NASA press conference nearly three hours after the failure.

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Docking Adapter, Satellites, Student Experiments Lost In Dragon Failure

WASHINGTON — The cargo lost on a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft when its Falcon 9 launch vehicle failed June 28 range from a key piece of hardware for future commercial crew spacecraft to an experiment developed by middle school students, but NASA officials said none of the cargo was critical to the near-term operations of the International Space Station.

The Dragon, flying on the seventh mission under SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA, carried 1,867 kilograms of pressurized cargo intended for the ISS, a total that increases to 1,952 kilograms when the weight of the cargo’s packaging is included. That total included 676 kilograms of crew supplies, 461 kilograms of hardware for the ISS, and 529 kilograms of scientific investigations.

The largest, and perhaps most valuable, item lost on the Dragon was an International Docking Adapter (IDA), a 526-kilogram item transported as unpressurized cargo in the “trunk” section of the Dragon spacecraft. The IDA, one of two built by NASA, would have been attached to the station to serve as a docking port for future commercial crew vehicles and potentially other spacecraft.

International Docking Adapter

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Planetary Society Raises $1.2 Million for LightSail

WASHINGTON — In a June 26 video posted to the  Kickstarter crowdfunding website, Bill Nye announced that the Planetary Society surpassed its stretch goal of $1.24 million to fund the 2016 LightSail mission.

Nye, chief executive of the Pasadena, California-based nonprofit, thanked the project’s backers for supporting this final fundraising push. “We are going to have a successful flight thanks to you,” he said.

Jennifer Vaughn, chief operating officer of the Planetary Society, said in a June 11 email that the organization expects to spend some $5 million on the LightSail project. This figure covers the project’s 2009 start to the a projected end-date in February 2017


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Government Agencies Differ on Use, Usefulness of Cubesats

WASHINGTON — As interest in the use of cubesats continues to grow, U.S. government agencies are taking very different approaches regarding their use, with some openly embracing them as useful scientific tools and others more skeptical about their effectiveness.

A June 22 meeting of an ad hoc committee of the National Research Council (NRC) on the scientific utility of cubesats also revealed different approaches in how agencies manage cubesat development efforts, with some taking a far more decentralized approach than others.

One of the biggest advocates for cubesats has not been NASA but the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has funded a small program for space science cubesat missions since 2008. “Cubesats can help us provide some of these measurements that we badly need,” said Therese Moretto Jorgensen, who manages NSF’s cubesat program. “Cubesats can’t do everything, but they can help.”

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New Horizons Probe is Ready for its Pluto Close-up

WASHINGTON — After nearly nine-and-a-half years of flight, and an even longer effort to build it, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is poised to provide scientists with their first — and, perhaps for many decades, only — close-up look at the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons.

New Horizons will make its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, passing approximately 12,500 kilometers above the dwarf planet’s surface at 7:50 a.m. EDT. Less than 15 minutes later, it will pass within 29,000 kilometers of the largest of Pluto’s five moons, Charon.

The spacecraft is in good health, project officials said in recent updates, with no known issues that could affect the flyby. They have kept a close watch on any dust rings, moons or other debris in the vicinity of Pluto that could pose a risk to New Horizons and possibly force it to take a safer, but more distant, trajectory.

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Asteroid Redirect Mission To Redirect Asteroid, After All

WASHINGTON — NASA has at last confirmed something that seemed implicit until it was not: That redirecting an asteroid sample to lunar orbit is indeed the goal of the agency’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).

Asked here during a June 29 meeting of the NASA-chartered Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) whether the agency considered asteroid redirection a success criteria for ARM, Michele Gates, program director for the Asteroid Redirect Mission at NASA headquarters, answered “yes.”

It was a complete change of tack from the answer Lindley Johnson, head of NASA’s Near Earth Object Observations Program, gave in January at SBAG’s last public meeting. At that time, Lindley framed asteroid redirection as a nice-to-have goal, noting that “at a certain level, objectives are tradable.”

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Ariane 5 Launch Rescheduled for July 15

PARIS — Officials with the Arianespace launch consortium said July 6 that oil contamination concerns that postponed the launch of a European weather satellite and a Brazilian telecommunications satellite aboard an Ariane 5 rocket had been resolved and that the mission is now scheduled for July 15.

The launch of the MSG-4 and Star One C4 satellites had been scheduled for July 8 but was postponed after oil was spotted on the rocket’s fairing.

Evry, France-based Arianespace initially declined to specify the cause of the delay, saying only that “additional checks as part of the preparation of [the] mission” were needed before proceeding with the launch.

A 2011 file photo of an Ariane 5 rocket rolling out to the launch pad. Credit: Arianespace

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NASA and SpaceX Delay Dragon In-Flight Abort Test

WASHINGTON — NASA and SpaceX plan to postpone an in-flight abort test of the crewed version of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft until after an orbital test flight, a decision they say is not linked to the June 28 Falcon 9 launch failure still in the early phases of its investigation.

In a July 1 statement, NASA announced SpaceX was delaying the test, where a Dragon spacecraft separates from its Falcon 9 launch vehicle during ascent, from later this year until after an orbital test flight of the crewed version of the Dragon vehicle. That test flight, which would not carry people onboard, is currently planned for late 2016 under SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract with NASA.

SpaceX’s original plans for the in-flight abort test called for using the same Dragon spacecraft that flew in a pad abort test in May from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. However, the Dragon design has changed since construction of that spacecraft started more than two years ago, so SpaceX will instead use the Dragon that flies the uncrewed test flight.

Dragon pad abort launch

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