Suborbital Flights Stopped Being So Humdrum in 2018

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo’s first flight above 50 miles on Dec. 13, 2018. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

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by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Throughout the Space Age, suborbital flight has been the least exciting segment of the launch market. Operating in the shadow of their much larger orbital cousins, sounding rockets carrying scientific instruments, microgravity experiments and technology demonstrations have flown to the fringes of space with little fanfare or media attention.

The suborbital sector has become much more dynamic in recent years now that billionaires have started spending money in it. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic both made significant progress last year in testing New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo, respectively. Their achievements have raised the real possibility of suborbital space tourism flights in 2019. (I know. Promises, promises…. But, this year they might finally really do it. I think.)

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ESA & DLR Agree on Mission Control Operation

OBERPFAFFENHOFEN, Germany (DLR PR) — The European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) have made an agreement to pool their expertise in space operations. The European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt and the German Space Operations Centre (GSOC) in Obepfaffenhofen near Munich have agreed to exploit shared know-how in the fields of mission operations and ground-based infrastructure, jointly developing new concepts, technologies and procedures. The cooperation agreement was signed on 18 December 2018 at DLR’s research facility in Oberpfaffenhofen during an Interoperability Plenary meeting, which brought together representatives from 12 space agencies worldwide.

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Self Driving Rovers Tested in Mars-like Morocco

SherpaTT rover during Morocco field test. (Credit: DFKI GmbH, Florian Cordes)

PARIS (ESA PR) — Robots invaded the Sahara Desert for Europe’s largest rover field test, taking place in a Mars-like part of Morocco. For two weeks three rovers and more than 40 engineers tested automated navigation systems at up to five different sites.

This marked the end of the first phase of the strategic research cluster on space robotics technologies, a scheme funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme.

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Mars InSight Lander Seen in First Images from Space

NASA’s InSight spacecraft, its heat shield and its parachute were imaged on Dec. 6 and 11 by the HiRISE camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — On Nov. 26, NASA’s InSight mission knew the spacecraft touched down within an 81-mile-long (130-kilometer-long) landing ellipse on Mars. Now, the team has pinpointed InSight’s exact location using images from HiRISE, a powerful camera onboard another NASA spacecraft, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

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Galileo Satellites Prove Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to Highest Accuracy Yet

Galileos measure Einsteinian time dilation. (Credit: ESA-P. Carril/Wikimedia Commons/G. Porter)

PARIS (ESA PR) — Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system – already serving users globally – has now provided a historic service to the physics community worldwide, enabling the most accurate measurement ever made of how shifts in gravity alter the passing of time, a key element of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

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German Mars Mole HP3 Arrives at Red Planet Aboard NASA’s InSight

The DLR experiment Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package in operation. (Credit: NASA/JPL/DLR)
  • The InSight space probe touched down safely on the Elysium Planitia plains of Mars on 26 November 2018 at 20:52:59 CET.
  • Carrying the DLR experiment HP3 (Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package), the mission will yield fresh insights into how the interior of Mars and rocky planets like Earth are structured and how they have evolved over time.
  • Focus: Space, exploration, robotics

COLOGNE, Germany (DLR PR)  — Just a few weeks from now, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) HP3 Mole will start hammering its way automatically into the subsoil of the Red Planet to measure its inner heat.

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Eu:CROPIS Life Support System – Greenhouses Launched into Space

Eu:CROPIS satellite (Credit: DLR)
  • On 3 December, the DLR Eu:CROPIS mission was successfully launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
  • A biofilter will be used to convert urine into fertiliser in a closed life support system.
  • The germination and ripening of the tomatoes in the two greenhouses will indicate that the experiment is going well.
  • By rotating around its own axis, the satellite can simulate gravitational conditions like those on the Moon or Mars.
  • Focus: Life support systems, biofilters, space travel, long-term missions

+++ Update: The Euglena and Combined Regenerative Organic-food Production in Space (Eu:CROPIS) mission of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) was successfully launched to space. The DLR satellite was successfully placed in orbit at an altitude of 600 kilometres.

First radio contact of the approximately refrigerator-sized satellite to the German Space Operations Center (GSOC) in Oberpfaffenhofen took place about one hour and 15 minutes after the launch. In the next two weeks, GSOC will commission the satellite in space and test all functions. In about seven weeks, the researchers will be able to put the first of two greenhouses into operation. Shortly thereafter, the first tomatoes will be cultivated. +++

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (DLR PR) — At 19:34 CET on 3 December 2018, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) Eu:CROPIS mission was launched into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

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InSight Is Catching Rays on Mars

The Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC), located on the robotic arm of NASA’s InSight lander, took this picture of the Martian surface on Nov. 26, 2018, the same day the spacecraft touched down on the Red Planet. The camera’s transparent dust cover is still on in this image, to prevent particulates kicked up during landing from settling on the camera’s lens. This image was relayed from InSight to Earth via NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft, currently orbiting Mars. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

PASADENA, Calif. and ELISIUM PLANITIA, Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech PR) — NASA’s InSight has sent signals to Earth indicating that its solar panels are open and collecting sunlight on the Martian surface. NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter relayed the signals, which were received on Earth at about 5:30 p.m. PST (8:30 p.m. EST). Solar array deployment ensures the spacecraft can recharge its batteries each day. Odyssey also relayed a pair of images showing InSight’s landing site.

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NASA’s InSight to Explore What Lies Beneath Martian Surface

InSight’seismometer (Crecdit: NASA)

PASADENA, Calif. and ELYSIUM PLANITIA, Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech PR) — Mars has just received its newest robotic resident. NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander successfully touched down on the Red Planet after an almost seven-month, 300-million-mile (458-million-kilometer) journey from Earth.

InSight’s two-year mission will be to study the deep interior of Mars to learn how all celestial bodies with rocky surfaces, including Earth and the Moon, formed.

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How We Will Know When InSight Touches Down on Mars

This image depicts the MarCO CubeSats relaying data from NASA’s InSight lander as it enters the Martian atmosphere. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — What’s the sound of a touchdown on Mars?

If you’re at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it sounds like winning the Super Bowl: cheers, laughter and lots of hollering.

But in the minutes before that, NASA’s InSight team will be monitoring the Mars lander’s radio signals using a variety of spacecraft — and even radio telescopes here on Earth — to suss out what’s happening 91 million miles (146 million km) away.

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NASA InSight Team on Course for Mars Touchdown

An artist’s impression of NASA InSight’s entry, descent and landing at Mars, scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — NASA’s Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) spacecraft is on track for a soft touchdown on the surface of the Red Planet on Nov. 26, the Monday after Thanksgiving. But it’s not going to be a relaxing weekend of turkey leftovers, football and shopping for the InSight mission team. Engineers will be keeping a close eye on the stream of data indicating InSight’s health and trajectory, and monitoring Martian weather reports to figure out if the team needs to make any final adjustments in preparation for landing, only five days away.

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NanoRacks Provides Historic Triple-Altitude Delivery for Customers in Single Space Station Launch

HOUSTON, November 19, 2018 (NanoRacks PR) — Early this morning, Cygnus, the spacecraft from the tenth contracted cargo resupply mission for Northrop Grumman (previously Orbital ATK), berthed with the International Space Station carrying yet another historic NanoRacks mission. For the first time ever, NanoRacks booked customers on three different altitudes on one commercial resupply launch.

The first delivery will be a research experiment to the astronauts on station. The experiment, “Experimental Chondrule Formation at the International Space Station,” or EXCISS, is the third and final project to launch through the joint “Überflieger” program, sponsored by DLR, the German Space Agency, and DreamUp, an XO Markets company and the leading provider of educational opportunities in space.

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DLR Developing Reusable Rocket Engine for Small Satellite Launcher

Rocket motor during hot fire test (Credit: DLR)
  • DLR researchers have developed a reusable rocket engine specifically for the launch of small satellites.
  • The rocket engine consists of two central components: a metal injector head manufactured by means of metal 3D printing and a ceramic combustion chamber.
  • Small satellites have the potential to fundamentally change the space industry.
  • Focus: space, small satellites, new manufacturing technologies, fibre ceramics

STUTTGART, Germany (DLR PR) — Whether alone or in a constellation, small satellites weighing from just a few kilograms (nanosatellites) up to several hundred kilograms (micro- and minisatellites) are becoming increasingly technologically sophisticated and have the potential to fundamentally change the space industry. In the coming years, hundreds of such small satellites will be carried into Earth orbit.

As part of the EU project SMILE (Small Innovative Launcher for Europe), researchers from the Institute of Structures and Design at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) have developed a reusable rocket engine especially for launching such satellites, and have performed an initial series of successful trials on a test rig.
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MASCOT Successfully Completes Exploration of Asteroid Ryugu

Figure 1c (Credit : JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST)
  • As planned, MASCOT was able to acquire data about the composition and texture of the asteroid at several locations.
  • Before the battery depleted, the lander sent all scientific data to the Hayabusa2 mothercraft.
  • New images from MASCOT’s landing on asteroid Ryugu were presented by DLR, JAXA and CNES today at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC).

COLOGNE, Germany (DLR PR) — It was a day full of exciting moments and a happy team of scientists and engineers: late in the afternoon of 3 October 2018, the German-French lander MASCOT completed its historic exploration of the surface of the asteroid Ryugu at 21:04 CEST, as its battery ran out.

On-asteroid operations were originally scheduled to last 16 hours after separation from the Japanese mothercraft Hayabusa2. But in the end, the battery lasted more than 17 hours.

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Images of MASCOT’s Descent to Asteroid Ryugu

Figure 1c shows the MASCOT lander descending toward asteroid Ryugu. (Credit : JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST)

TOKYO (JAXA PR) — The small asteroid lander, MASCOT, that was developed in Germany and France, was successfully separated from the Hayabusa2 spacecraft on October 3 and delivered safely to the surface of Ryugu. After landing, MASCOT acquired scientific data on the asteroid surface, which was transmitted to the MASCOT team via the spacecraft. Scientific analysis of this data is expected to be performed by the MASCOT team from now onwards.

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