Success, Setbacks and Silence: 2016 in Review

The past 12 months, for good or ill, have redefined space exploration. In 2016, efforts to expand the space frontier both resumed and retracted, visionaries made bold claims, while legends fell silent forever.

NASA has been working for an extended period of time (since 2006) to cede the responsibility of sending cargo and crew to the International Space Station to commercial companies. While cargo delivery under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and subsequent Commercial Resupply Services contract have been taking place on a recurring basis since October 2012, the launch date for sending astronauts to the orbiting lab via commercial partners has slipped time and again.

Both of the two partners under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Boeing, and SpaceX announced in 2016 that, far from the originally planned 2015 inaugural flights, their CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft would launch astronauts no earlier than 2018 (no commercial company has launched astronauts to orbit to date).

Read more at: Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX’s Year of Fiery Triumphs and Explosive Failure

MAYBE 2016 WASN’T your year. Buck up, at least your $60 million dollar rocket bearing a $200 million dollar payload didn’t explode on the launchpad. Or, perhaps your year was great. Again, some perspective: Did you land four rockets on ocean barges after inserting satellites into orbit around the Earth? No? Neither? Then lay off the superlatives, because SpaceX probably had both a better, and worse, 2016 than you.

Every instance of the company’s fortune or adversity comes because Elon Musk wants space to be a mass market commodity. More explicitly, he wants people to be able to buy tickets to the Red Planet for about $200,000. Now, the mortgage cost of a modest suburban home might not strike everyone as being “mass market.” But that’s relative to the current cost—millions and millions and millions—of sending a person into orbit. Hence, SpaceX’s biggest attention-grabbing endeavor: landing its first-stage boosters on barges.

Read more at: Wired

How 2016 Heralded a New Kind of Race into the Final Frontier

The year 2016 has been one of mixed feelings for the space community. It brought a breakthrough to new entrants, heartbreaks with unfortunate incidents to others – and at the same time a ray of new hope with more money being poured into investments into NewSpace than ever before.

It began with the big-ticket announcement of Airbus and OneWeb forming a joint venture to build 900 satellites to provide global internet broadband service. The service is expected to be operational by 2019. Then, the biggest investment of the year was announced: OneWeb received $1.2 billion in SoftBank-led investments. With the Airbus Group, Intelsat, Bharti Enterprises, Totalplay, Hughes Network Systems, Qualcomm, Coca-Cola Co., and the Virgin Group already onboard as investors, OneWeb is by far the biggest bet in the industry to bridge the digital connectivity gap by 2030.

On the home front, India made some big moves. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) decided to largely privatise Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle operations by 2020 via an industry consortium led ISRO itself. In another major move, ISRO awarded a contract to a consortium of private companies to build two navigation satellites – the second one independently at the consortium’s facilities.

Read more at: The Wire

Commercial Spaceflight Hits a Milestone

When Chris Ferguson commanded the final space shuttle mission in July 2011, he and his crew members left behind something on the International Space Station: a small American flag that had flown on the first shuttle mission three decades earlier. “It will hopefully maintain a position of honor until the next vehicle launched from U.S. soil brings U.S. astronauts up to dock with the space station,” Ferguson explained in a call with President Obama during the mission.

“I understand it’s going to be sort of a ‘capture the flag’ moment here for commercial spaceflight,” Obama responded. As the director for crew and mission operations at Boeing, Ferguson is one of the leaders of that company’s effort to develop and operate a spacecraft to carry NASA astronauts to the space station—and capture that flag. Boeing is competing with SpaceX for that privilege, and both are racing the clock to get those vehicles flying before a NASA contract with Russia runs out.

Read more at: IEEE Spectrum

Google Lunar X Prize Teams Await Word of their Fate

Teams competing in the Google Lunar X Prize, facing an end-of-the-year deadline to obtain a verified launch contract, may not know until some time in January if they will be able to continue in their race to the moon.

The competition, which offers a $20 million grand prize to the first private team to land a spacecraft on the moon, travel at least 500 meters, and transmit video and other data, requires the 16 remaining teams to submit a launch contract to be verified by the X Prize Foundation, which runs the competition, by Dec. 31. Teams that fail to do so will be dropped from contention, while those who continue will have until the end of 2017 to launch their missions.

To date, four teams have verified launch contracts: Moon Express, which will launch on an Electron rocket from Rocket Lab; SpaceIL, which will launch its spacecraft on a SpaceX Falcon 9; Synergy Moon, which will use a Neptune rocket being developed by Interorbital Systems; and TeamIndus, which will launch on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle from the Indian space agency ISRO. A fifth team, Hakuto, announced Dec. 20 it had a verified agreement to fly its rover on the TeamIndus lander.

Read more at: Space News

County Marks Completion of World View HQ, Spaceport

Pima County and World View Enterprises on Thursday marked the completion of Spaceport Tucson and the headquarters and manufacturing plant the company will lease from the county. The county entered into an economic development agreement with World View in January to keep the company in Tucson. World View plans to use its space to manufacture its new, high-altitude balloon flight vehicles, known as Stratollites, and offer unmanned flights to the stratosphere for commerciial and research purposes.

The balloon vehicles can loiter over an area as a low-cost alternative to geostationary satellites for applications including communications, remote sensing, weather, and research. Eventually, the company hopes to offer people the chance to ride to the edge of space for a fee.

Read more at: Tucson

NASA’s SDO Adds Leap Second To Master Clock

On December 31, 2016, official clocks around the world will add a leap second just before midnight Coordinated Universal Time — which corresponds to 6:59:59 p.m. EST. NASA missions will also have to make the switch, including the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, which watches the sun 24/7. Clocks do this to keep in sync with Earth’s rotation, which gradually slows down over time. When the dinosaurs roamed Earth, for example, our globe took only 23 hours to make a complete rotation. In space, millisecond accuracy is crucial to understanding how satellites orbit.

“SDO moves about 1.9 miles every second,” said Dean Pesnell, the project scientist for SDO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “So does every other object in orbit near SDO. We all have to use the same time to make sure our collision avoidance programs are accurate. So we all add a leap second to the end of 2016, delaying 2017 by one second.” The leap second is also key to making sure that SDO is in sync with the Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC, used to label each of its images

Read more at: Colorado Spacenews

Playing the Space Trump Card: Relaunching a National Space Council

As the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump kicks into high gear, the future of the country’s civil and military activities in space is on the table.

Late in the 2016 presidential race, the Trump campaign aired the idea of relaunching the National Space Council (NSC) to oversee U.S. space policy. When NASA was formed, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 mandated an aeronautics and space advisory group as a mechanism to help guide America’s space agenda. Over the following decades there has been an on-again, off-again history of a National Space Council to serve the U.S. President.

The idea of such a Council is seemingly in play again in the wake of the 2016 election. But just how politics, agency cultures, personalities, and budget constraints play nice with each other in 2017 – in terms of resuscitating a National Space Council – is anybody’s guess.

Read more at: Space.com

China Wants to Rival NASA With Mission to Mars

China is anxious for take off. The China National Space Administration — its version of NASA — has outlined an ambitious five-year plan to become a leader in the international space race. The country hopes to land two probes on the moon by 2018, and launch an exploratory mission to Mars by 2020.

“The white paper sets out our vision of China as a space power, independently researching, innovating, discovering and training specialist personnel,” Wu Yanhua, deputy chief of the space agency, said Tuesday during a press conference, according to China Daily.

China’s Chang’e 4 lunar mission is scheduled to launch in 2018 and aims to be the first-ever probe to explore the moon’s “far” side — the area that never faces Earth. Satellites have photographed this hemisphere since 1959, when the then-Soviet Union’s Luna 3 captured the first images, but there’s yet to be a spacecraft (or an astronaut) to land on its surface.

Read more at: NY Post

How will Religion Affect the Future of Space Exploration?

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) is a nonprofit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. CARA recently collaborated with GfK Custom Research to conduct a survey showing religious attitudes on space exploration. Among the questions asked were “Do you believe the Earth’s demise is ultimately something we can understand and predict scientifically or something in God’s hands and therefore unpredictable?” and “Do you believe that the destiny of human life is somewhere other than Earth or here on Earth?” Responses from the survey were correlated with other studies and opinions done on people from diverse religions to show the different religious attitudes on space exploration

Read more at: worldreligiousnews

China’s Long March 2D Rocket Runs into Trouble During SuperView Satellite Launch

China’s Long March 2D rocket lifted off from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center at 3:23 UTC on Wednesday, carrying into orbit the first two high-resolution Earth-imaging satellites in a new multi-sensor, commercial Earth Observation Constellation.

Although initial reports claimed the launch was a success, orbital data showed that the two main payloads did not reach the intended orbit and a number of flight sequence events did not match up with the pre-launch predictions.

Following up on last-week’s successful Long March 2D launch out of Jiuquan with the TanSat spacecraft, Wednesday’s mission was dedicated to lifting the Gaojing-1 and 2 satellites – the first two in a high-resolution imaging constellation operated by Space View, based in Beijing. It marked the first Long March 2D launch from Taiyuan after the vehicle flew exclusively from Jiuquan for the past 24 years.

Read more at: Spaceflight 101

NASA Cooperating With Russia on Progress MS-04 Investigation

The accident concerns the security of both Russian and American crew members on board the International Space Station (ISS), which is why NASA specialists are cooperating with Roscosmos, a NASA spokesperson told the Russian Izvestia newspaper on Thursday.

General Director of S. P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia Vladimir Solntsev explained to Izvestia that the Progress MS-04 accident occurred within a record-short time frame, which is one of the reasons why US specialists are helping Russia investigate it. Earlier this month, Roscosmos confirmed the loss of Progress MS-04 space freighter after a faulty launch from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. The spacecraft was carrying more than 2.6 metric tons of food, fuel, and supplies for the Expedition 50 crew aboard the International Space Station.

Read more at: Sputnik News

NASA to Come Up With Ice Homes on Red Planet to Protect Astronauts

NASA researchers say that in the near future, they might come up with ice homes on Mars to protect astronauts from harsh environment. The researchers further say that to protect the astronauts from harsh Martian environment, ice is probably the best building material.

The surface of Mars has extreme temperatures and the atmosphere does not provide adequate protection from high-energy radiation. The researchers believe that their “Ice Home” design provides a sound engineering solution to offer astronauts a safe place to call home. The Mars Ice Home is a large inflatable torus, a shape similar to an inner tube, that is surrounded by a shell of water ice.

Read more at: Zee News

Internal Debris Maybe Causing Problem with Mars Rover’s Drill

Engineers suspect a piece of foreign object debris may be intermittently stalling a motor needed to place the Curiosity Mars rover’s drill bit onto rocks, and the robot’s ground team is assessing the source of the potential contamination.

More importantly, Curiosity project manager Jim Erickson said, engineers are spending the holidays crunching data from a series of diagnostic tests conducted in recent weeks to analyze the drill’s behavior and determine a possible fix.

Curiosity is in its second extended mission — the rover’s original primary mission phase ended in 2014 — on the lower flank of Mount Sharp, a three-mile-high (5-kilometer) peak towering over the floor of Gale Crater, the robot’s landing site. The rover’s drill pulverizes material from inside Martian rocks into powder, and delivers the samples to two of Curiosity’s main science instruments — the Sample Analysis at Mars payload and the Chemistry and Mineralogy package — to look for organic materials and measure mineral content.

Read more at: Spaceflight Now

China Aiming for Multiple Unmanned Exploration Missions to Mars and Jupiter by 2030, Official Says

China is planning to send multiple unmanned probe missions to Mars and Jupiter by 2030, a senior space official said on Tuesday (27 December) during a news conference hosted by the State Council Information Office.

China has so far launched three robotic lunar exploration missions and the new projects are part of its ambitious space programme – details of which were released in a white paper on China’s Space Activities in 2016. Addressing the news conference in Beijing, Wu Yanhua, deputy director of the China National Space Administration, said that the government has decided to send the first robotic probe to Mars in 2020, followed by another to the Red Planet and one to Jupiter around 2030. Wu said that the first Mars mission, which will conduct scientific research on the Martian soil and atmosphere and search for signs of water, was approved in January.

Read more at: IB Times

Europe and Russia Looking at Space Tug Project

Europe’s largest aerospace group Airbus Defence and Space (Airbus DS) plans to help the Russian Rocket and Space Corporation (RSC) Energia in the practical implementation of a project to create a space tug, head of Airbus DS in Russia Vladimir Terekhov said.

According to him, the prospective space tug can be used in commercial aeronautics, and its creation could change scheme of launching, in particular, of communications satellites – the tug will take the unit to the desired point on the geostationary orbit. It can also serve as a space tanker and space garbage collector.

“We so see the possibility of collaborating on this project. I must say that for our part, we are also working on this subject, primarily using our own funds. The idea proposed by RSC Energia many years ago, and started ahead of its time, may now y finally get the long-awaited practical realization due to the emergence of new space materials and technologies,” Terekhov told RIA Novosti.

Read more at: Space Daily

Iridium Satellites Closed Up for Launch on Falcon 9 Rocket

The first 10 satellites for Iridium’s next-generation mobile voice and data relay network have been fueled, joined with their deployment module and encapsulated inside the clamshell-like nose cone of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster for launch as soon as next week from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

SpaceX and Iridium have not announced a target launch date, but engineers are aiming to have the mission ready for liftoff by Jan. 7. That schedule is still very preliminary.

An official target launch date is pending the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval of the SpaceX-led investigation into the explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral on Sept. 1, which destroyed the Israeli-owned Amos 6 communications satellite awaiting liftoff a few days later. SpaceX missions have been grounded since the explosion.

Read more at: Spaceflight Now

Russian Static Discharge Measure Unit to Prolong Satellite Equipment Lifespan

The Russian Space Systems holding, which belongs to the state-run Roscosmos space corporation, has created a new miniature electrostatic discharge measurement unit that can help extend the lifespan of satellite electronic equipment, the company said Tuesday in a statement.

“A miniature measurement unit for the electrostatic discharge parameters, created by the Russian Space Systems holding, will allow for the protection of space mechanisms from damages and disturbances and will extend their lifespan.

“The unit’s size is four times less than that of the existing analogues, which allows for the use of it on micro-satellites,” the statement said. According to the statement, the technology has passed the trials and is ready to be used.

Read more at: Space Daily

Why Russia won’t be Leaving Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome Anytime Soon

On Monday, Russian and Kazakh officials signed an agreement regulating continued cooperation at Baikonur. The agreement was signed during Khazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s visit to St. Petersburg for Tuesday’s meeting of both the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Council. The new agreement includes an eight-year road map up to the year 2025. A day later, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin confirmed that Russia plans to launch fifteen rockets from Baikonur in 2017.

Russia has agreements with the Central Asian country to lease Baikonur until at least 2050. The spaceport is jointly managed by the Russian space agency Roscosmos and Russia’s Aerospace Forces. According to Russian Academy of Cosmonautics member Andrei Ionin, the Russians won’t be leaving the spaceport anytime soon, since Moscow’s plans include economic and geopolitical goals for which it is ready to pay.

Read more: Sputnik News

China to Improve Space Debris Database, Spacecraft Protection

China will enhance the space debris basic database and data-sharing model, and advance the development of space debris monitoring facilities, according to a white paper released on Tuesday.

The white paper, titled “China’s Space Activities in 2016,” said China will improve the standardization system for space debris, near-earth objects and space climate in the next five years. “It will enhance the space debris basic database and data-sharing model, and advance the development of space debris monitoring facilities, the early warning and emergency response platform and the online service system, through reinforcing integrated utilization of resources,” the white paper said.

Read more at: Space Daily

Mysterious Fireball Disintegrates in the Sky of Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador

A mysterious fireball was filmed exploding in different pieces in the sky over Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua at 04:30 UTC on December 28, 2016 (22:30 CST on December 27). Some witnesses report loud booms and up to seven flashes during the disintegration of the bright space rock. But was this a meteor or space junk?

The Salvadoran Association of Astronomy ASTRO said the brilliant fireball that surprised many Salvadorans tonight was also visible from Guatemala City and Managua. Although officials and skywatchers agree the event was a meteor disintegrating, some say -like me – the slow nature of the strange event indicates a possible space debris coming back to Earth. It was indeed observed for more than 30 seconds.

Read more at: Strangesounds

China to Expand Int’l Cooperation on Space Sciences

China on Tuesday issued a white paper summarizing international cooperation on space sciences since 2011 and the key areas for further cooperation in the next five years.

The white paper issued by the State Council Information Office, titled China’s Space Activities in 2016, said that China always adheres to the principle that international exchanges and cooperation should be strengthened on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, peaceful utilization and inclusive development.

Since 2011 China has signed 43 space cooperation agreements or memoranda of understanding with 29 countries, space agencies and international organizations. It has taken part in relevant activities sponsored by the United Nations and other relevant international organizations, and supported international commercial cooperation in space. These measures have yielded fruitful results.

Read more at: Space Daily

SBIRS Block 10 Overcomes Hurdles to Secure Future Ops at Buckley

The 2nd Space Warning Squadron at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, is on constant watch for heat signatures across the globe. Rapidly responding, these Airmen are able to detect missile activity anywhere on the planet and send the information up their chain of command.

“What we do for missile warning is unrivaled,” said Capt. Austen Bryan, 2nd SWS flight commander of operation support. “There are capabilities out there that can accomplish parts of what we do, but from a whole system concept, nobody even comes close to us.”

In June of this year, to enhance their capabilities even further, the mission operations were transferred to the Block 10. Block 10 is a new ground system that brings Space-Based Infrared System, Geostationary Orbit, Highly Elliptical Orbit and Defense Support Program satellites together. Not only has the process become faster, but with all the raw data now coming into one ground system, the quality of the data is significantly enhanced.

Read more at: Colorado Spacenews

Two 2017 NASA Missions Set to Study Edge of Space

Far above Earth’s tenuous upper atmosphere is a layer of charged particles that have been split into positive and negative ions by the Sun’s harsh ultraviolet radiation. This area where the Earth’s atmosphere and terrestrial weather give way to the space environment is called the ionosphere. In 2017, NASA plans to launch two satellite missions to study this region: the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) and the Global Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD).

“The ionosphere doesn’t only react to energy input by solar storms,” said Scott England, a space scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who works on both the ICON and GOLD missions. “Terrestrial weather, like hurricanes and wind patterns, can shape the atmosphere and ionosphere, changing how they react to space weather.”

ICON will simultaneously measure the characteristics of charged particles in the ionosphere and neutral particles in the atmosphere to understand how they interact. GOLD will make many of the same measurements but from geostationary orbit, which will provide a global view of changes in the ionosphere.

Read more at: Spaceflight Insider

Space Station Battery Replacement Work to Begin New Year’s Eve

An extensive robotics and spacewalking effort that will continue until mid-January is about to get underway on the International Space Station to begin the process of re-fitting the Station with new batteries that will enable the complex to head into its final decade of operations.

The new batteries – delivered earlier this month by the Japanese HTV-6 cargo spacecraft – will replace aging Nickel-Hydrogen battery units on the Station’s truss segment that feed power to the various ISS systems during periods of orbital night – 35 minutes of each orbit around Earth. A total of four batches of batteries are scheduled to be delivered to the Station as the replacement effort unfolds sequentially over the next few years to revamp the Station’s power system with state-of-the-art Lithium-Ion batteries.

Read more at: Spaceflight 101

Vera Rubin, Astronomer Who Helped Find Evidence of Dark Matter, Dies at 88

Vera Rubin, a pioneering astronomer who helped find powerful evidence of dark matter, has died aged 88, her son said on Monday. She died on Sunday night of natural causes, Allan Rubin told the Associated Press. The professor of geosciences at Princeton University said his mother, a Philadelphia native, had been living in the Princeton area.

Vera Rubin found that galaxies don’t quite rotate the way they were predicted, and that lent support to the theory that some other force was at work, namely dark matter. Dark matter, which hasn’t been directly observed, makes up 27% of the universe – as opposed to 5% of the universe being normal observable matter. Scientists better understand what dark matter is not rather than what it is.

Read more at: Guardian

White Paper Sets Out China’s Vision as a Space Power

China aims to become a space power, according to a white paper on the nation’s space activities issued on Tuesday. The white paper, titled “China’s Space Activities in 2016,” was the fourth white paper on the country’s space activities issued by the State Council Information Office, following the previous three in 2000, 2006 and 2011.

“The white paper sets out our vision of China as a space power, independently researching, innovating, discovering and training specialist personnel,” said Wu Yanhua, deputy chief of the China National Space Administration at a press conference. China’s space industry took off 60 years ago and April 24 was declared National Space Day in 2016 as a focus for pioneering spirit and enthusiasm for innovation, Wu said.

Read more at: Space Daily

Will a President Trump Change NASA’s Mars Goals? Sen. Bill Nelson Says No

Turmoil with Russia and uncertainty with how Donald Trump will “refocus” the U.S. space program is having no effect on NASA’s goal of getting humans to Mars, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is telling anyone who will listen. During a recent stop in Tallahassee, the lone statewide elected Democrat in Florida, chided reporters for not asking more about the space program and the nation’s efforts to explore Mars.

“It is my interest to see that NASA doesn’t miss a beat,” under the Trump administration, Nelson told reporters. He re-affirmed plans to get humans to Mars by 2033 and another to have a new American rocket to take U.S. astronauts to space within the next two years. “We’re well on our way,” said Nelson, who is the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee with jurisdiction over NASA.

Read more at: Miami Herald

A Survey of Space Settlement Designs

The author compiled every known orbital space settlement design into a database. Grouped into chronological ‘eras,’ the database describes basic information for each design: population capacity, dimensions, gravity level, energy source, etc. Using this information one can conclude that interest in space settlement is increasing, 1g is the preferred gravity level, solar power is the preferred energy source, and a torus is the preferred geometry. As for location, Earth-Moon Lagrange points dominate but there is a budding movement to place settlements in low Earth orbits.

Read more at: NSS