Humanity Gains Another Foothold in Space

The private spaceflight company SpaceX has done it again, and this latest achievement is an important one.

Crew Dragon berthed with the space station at 2:51 a.m. PT [NASA]

We space writers are very familiar with Elon Musk’s human spaceflight dreams that can be encapsulated in his well-known goal to “make humanity multi-planetary,” starting with a Mars settlement. And today, that goal took another step closer to reality.

I’ve been following Musk’s rocket adventures ever since his early days of exploding single-engine rockets in the South Pacific. Back then, Musk was a “dreamer” and more than a little eccentric. His eccentricities are well documented, but the world’s best known billionaire-entrepreneur is a dreamer no more. The first successful flight of a Falcon 1 happened on Sept. 28, 2008. (You can read my 2008 Space Lifestyle Magazine article on that topic, page 36) A little over a decade later, the Falcon 1 has rapidly evolved into the reusable Falcon 9 workhorse and the Falcon Heavy and, with key partnerships with NASA and companies that need to get stuff into orbit cheaply, SpaceX has developed the human-rated Dragon spacecraft to ultimately get astronauts to the space station, and beyond.

After proving itself in the cargo-delivery arena, the Dragon has now won its human-spaceflight wings: an (uncrewed) Crew Dragon is now attached to the International Space Station’s Harmony module and the outpost’s astronauts have entered the vehicle.

Building a commercially-viable space infrastructure is paramount if humanity is to truly become multi-planetary, and through partnerships between private business and government contracts, today’s achievement is proof that this model can work.

Too often, governments lack the long-term vision for human space exploration, instead plowing money into bloated, politically motivated, and ultimately doomed federally-funded projects. SpaceX may be an exhausting company to work for, but its ultimate mission is crystal clear. It’s not a satellite-launching company, it’s just doing that to build funds to do the Next Big Thing. Dragon’s autonomous berthing with the space station is That Big Thing that will drive more investment into getting stuff beyond Earth orbit.

Musk’s interim target — before getting humans to Mars — is the moon, to create a permanently-crewed lunar base. How that will shape up remains to be seen, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from following his dreams of getting into space on a reusable spaceflight infrastructure, it’s don’t bet against SpaceX and Elon Musk’s “eccentricities.”

We Are The 4.9%

The AMS attached to the space station's exterior (NASA)
The AMS attached to the space station’s exterior (NASA)

This month is Global Astronomy Month (GAM2013) organized by my friends Astronomers Without Borders (AWB). There is a whole host of events going on right this moment to boost astronomy throughout the international community, and as a part of GAM2013, AWB are hosting daily blogs from guest astronomers, writers, physicists and others with a background in space. Today (April 11) was my turn, so I wrote a blog about the fascinating first results to be announced on the International Space Station instrument the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer — or AMS for short.

Although the AMS’ most recent findings suggest positrons with a signature energy indicative of the annihilation of dark matter — particularly hypothetical weakly interaction massive particles (WIMPS) — it isn’t final proof of dark matter (despite what the tabloid press might’ve told you). But still, it’s exciting and another component of our enduring search for 95.1% of the mass-energy of the universe that is locked in the mysterious and perplexing dark matter and dark energy.

You can read my blog on the AWB website: “Dark Matter: We Are The 4.9%

Soyuz Floating On Clouds

The Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft parachute contrasts with the cloud over Kazakhstan minutes before touchdown. Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA
The Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft parachute contrasts with the cloud over Kazakhstan minutes before touchdown. Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA

In the early hours of Sunday morning (Pacific Time), a Russian cosmonaut, NASA astronaut and a European Space Agency astronaut returned to Earth after a 6-month stay on the International Space Station (ISS). Oleg Kononenko, Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers landed safely on the Kazakhstan steppes after the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft fired its soft landing rockets, blasting a cloud of dust into the air. But before touchdown and after the violence of reentry, NASA photographer Bill Ingalls was able to photograph this beautiful aerial view of the Soyuz and deployed parachute above the clouds. What a ride that must have been.

Read more about the successful Soyuz landing on Discovery News.

Special thanks to NASA astronaut Nicole Stott (@Astro_Nicole) for tweeting this photo!

SpaceX’s Dragon: The Dawn of a New Age for Space Exploration?

SpaceX's Falcon 9 carries the Dragon capsule to orbit (NASA TV)
SpaceX's Falcon 9 carries the Dragon capsule to orbit (NASA TV)

This morning, at 12:44 a.m. PDT, a rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40. It wasn’t the biggest of rockets; it wasn’t carrying a particularly exciting payload, either. But it may well represent a crossroads in spaceflight history.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, saw a perfect launch of its Falcon 9 rocket. Sporting nine Merlin engines — engines designed and built in-house — the rocket blasted off exactly as planned even though the first launch attempt on Saturday was scrubbed. The “failed” attempt — that was aborted automatically in the last second due to a faulty valve in number 5 engine — was actually a success unto itself; a means of ensuring the launch abort systems were working as they should.

But Saturday is a distant memory as, at right at this moment, there’s an unmanned spacecraft chasing after the International Space Station set for a historic orbital rendezvous in three days time. The Falcon 9 operated as it should and so has the Dragon capsule. So far.

Assuming everything else goes to plan, what does this mission mean for the future of spaceflight?

This is no silver bullet to solve all our spaceflight woes, but it could be the start of something a little bit special. Elon Musk, Internet entrepraneur and SpaceX CEO, has no qualms about thinking big. His enthusiasm for space exploration is infectious and his eye for applying a business model to rocket science is, so far, genius. In a world driven by politics and money, he’s found a way of tying the two together to give the noble effort of pushing mankind’s frontiers an accelerated start. He’s eying Mars. If SpaceX can build rockets and spaceships, perhaps companies, governments and institutions will buy his company’s services to travel through interplanetary space.

Does this mean Mars “taxi rides” are in our future? Perhaps.

But spaceflight history is littered with failed start-ups, accidents and expense, so time will only tell how far SpaceX and other private spaceflight companies can push mankind’s exploration envelope.

I can’t help but be enthusiastic for Musk’s endeavour, however. Remember Sept. 28, 2008, when SpaceX became the first company to launch its own rocket into orbit? That was only four short years ago.

It may be too early to get excited over seeing the Dragon docked to the ISS, but the importance of such an event shouldn’t be ignored. Once SpaceX proves it can be done, this could be a paradigm shift. Space exploration could be driven by enterprise and exploration, potentially transforming us into a multi-planetary species.

Listen to the “Which Way, LA” show hosted by Warren Olney where we discuss SpaceX and commercial space.

What’s NASA’s Biggest Accomplishment of 2009? It’s Still Here.

A space station in the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey.' It's hard to believe that by 2015 we might not have any space station (the sci-fi writers in the 20th century didn't see that coming).
A space station in the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey.' It's hard to believe that by 2015 we might not have any manned outpost in orbit (sci-fi writers never saw that coming).

I was only half joking when I tweeted, “Vote for your favorite NASA accomplishment in 2009: [x] Still existing.” I was referring to a vote that is being held over on iTWire, where they’ve listed an array of NASA endeavors and then asked their readers to pick their favorite mission/discovery.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have a clue about how to choose between a Mercury flyby, precision-bombing of the Moon or detection Martian methane; all endeavors have enormous merit and each have vastly improved our knowledge of the Universe. Each is as profound as the other. But it’s not the vote of a 3 page list of NASA achievements that I found myself most uneasy with, it’s the fact that none of these achievements can make the future of the world’s premier space agency any more secure, especially when we are talking about orbiting U.S. astronauts.

There’s a strange dichotomy of opinion: NASA is globally renowned and respected for carrying out outstanding science, and yet it is constantly lambasted (often unfairly) for its spaceflight ineptitude.

Shuttle Out. Space Station Out?

The catalyst to NASA’s human spaceflight problems is of course the retirement of the shuttle next year. We’ve seen it coming for a long time and yet the “5-year gap” hasn’t budged, in fact, it’s become a lot bigger. This gap is the number of years between the shuttle being retired and the proposed completion of NASA’s next launch system, Constellation. To fill this gap, the U.S. must use the Russian Soyuz vehicle at a premium rate. One can only imagine the diplomatic fun NASA has in store for the next few years.

And why should NASA maintain its human spaceflight program anyway? You remember the International Space Station (ISS), right? Well, it’s a good idea to have access to the biggest space station ever constructed in Earth-orbit after spending billions to build the thing. Unfortunately, the very foundations of the ISS are looking a little shaky.

Here we are with the world’s most expensive real estate zooming over our heads, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just told the White House that the U.S. taxpayer is getting a raw deal from International Space Station (ISS) science. This obviously doesn’t sound good for the ISS’ future beyond 2015. (That is, if you can still comprehend that the space station is still slated for decommissioning in five years time.)

Slight-Of-Hand Rocketry

I only have a general idea about what information the GAO has access to, but I know that the ISS is doing continuous science in microgravity to better our understanding about how we operate in space and use instrumentation that have a huge advantage over ground-based techniques. Unfortunately, NASA is a political entity and politicians are eying the space station with more than a little skepticism. As pointed out by Greg Fish over at Weird Things, wasn’t the ISS supposed to the stepping stone to the Moon… or even Mars by now? Not so long ago I remember intense excitement for how the ISS was going to change the world. Shockingly, now I sometimes hear people say: “we have a space station?!”

To make matters worse, the shuttle replacement is underfunded and behind schedule and the shadow of doubt over Constellation is becoming blacker than a moonless night. NASA triumphantly launched the Ares I-X, only for the celebrations to be quenched by critics (including ex-Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin calling it “slight-of-hand rocketry“) pointing out that the Ares test launch was a publicity stunt at best. At worst, the space agency was conning the American public into thinking progress was being made.

Whether NASA makes any kind of Constellation progress or continues to perform outstanding science on the ISS, it seems that there is a widening disconnect between NASA science and the perception of what NASA is trying to do. Many argue that NASA is just really bad at communicating science to a public audience, but I would say that the agency is doing more than ever to communicate their stuff. Also, NASA does an awful lot more than just getting astronauts into space — their robotic missions, observatories, space telescopes and research are breaking new ground every day. So why the huge question mark hanging over NASA’s human spaceflight plans?

Myopic Politics

Well, getting man into space is dangerous, it’s expensive and it’s long-term. All of which are not good for the political nature of NASA. In 2004, President Bush made the gargantuan promise that the US would make it back to the Moon by 2020 (and Mars soon after). This sounds great, but there was no money. Bush had made a political decision based on his term in office, he had also made it after the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy when seven astronauts lost their lives. Back then, NASA needed direction more than ever, especially as the shuttle fleet was grounded.

Although the shuttle missions recommenced and NASA got back to leading space station construction, by 2009 Bush’s “Vision” has become nothing more than a pipe dream. The money that was promised never materialized and it is now up to President Obama to get NASA’s human spaceflight plans back on its feet. But the damage has been done and the U.S. has an ailing economy and lumped with an overpriced Constellation Program. Changes need to be made.

The Augustine Commission has done something to identify the options, but the final decision comes down to what Obama and the new NASA Administrator Charles Bolden can hash out.

Commercial Rocketeers

Personally, I don’t see the Constellation Program getting off the starting blocks. But I don’t think this is due to any kind of technical or design issue, it will be purely political. Funds are tight, Constellation is too expensive. Sadly, adding insult to injury, the ISS is also in the firing line.

So now the responsibility for U.S. participation in the ISS falls on the shoulders of the burgeoning private spaceflight sector, which in itself could be a revolution in the making. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a real commercial answer to the human spaceflight problem? Using companies like SpaceX to ferry astronauts to-and-from the ISS makes a lot more sense than NASA doing the same job for way more money.

But again, I have that nagging feeling about a genuine disconnect between the public and the importance of spaceflight. Not only can human spaceflight advance human experience, it can boost our economy, education and technology. Last time I looked, those were very political sectors, it’s just unfortunate that politicians and many voters will never understand the correlation.

A Visor Filled With Awesomeness

The space station as reflected in John "Danny" Olivas' spacesuit visor on September 3, 2009 (NASA)
The space station as reflected in John "Danny" Olivas' spacesuit visor on September 3, 2009 (NASA)

When I came across this image in NASA’s Human Space Flight gallery, I stopped. I was looking for the “perfect” shuttle image during the STS-128 mission to the International Space Station earlier this month, but I got sucked into browsing through the hundreds of EVA photographs NASA has stockpiled in their archives.

This particular scene was taken by NASA astronaut John "Danny" Olivas when he was out on a spacewalk installing a new Ammonia Tank Assembly. The EVA was over six hours long and Olivas was able to do some digital photography in that time. This picture shows his spacesuit helmet visor, with a reflection of the camera at arms length below.

Also visible in the reflections in the visor are various components of the station and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang, mission specialist, anchored to a Canadarm2 mobile foot restraint. —NASA

The reflection captures so much detail. The curvature of the Earth can be seen in the distance, with space station solar arrays jutting in front. Even the two docked Soyuz vehicles (TMA-14 and TMA-15) are in shot. To top it all off, ESA astronaut Fuglesang is dangling in the vacuum of space attached to a robotic arm.

Quite simply, awesome.

Russian Saraychev Peak Eruption Video Glory

Wow! I thought the single image of the volcanic eruption (plus shock wave) was cool, but after seeing the complete series of images put together in this animation, I’m literally blown away. Thank you Richard Drumm for sharing the video on Twitter — now this is one YouTube video that needs to be shown off.

The 29 photos in this animation were taken by space station astronauts as they passed over Russia’s Sarychev Peak volcano in the Kuril Islands.

For more information, check out my previous Astroengine post

Colbert: Entomologists Succeed Where NASA Failed, Introducing The Agaporomorphus Colberti

Agaporomorphus colberti, a diving beetle from Venezuela (Kelly Miller and Quentin Wheeler)

You remember last month’s fuss over a certain component of the International Space Station, don’t you? You know, the NASA node-naming competition that a certain US comedian managed to dominate, ultimately winning the popular vote to name the node after himself? Come on, you must remember? The vote that NASA ultimately decided wasn’t very suitable and went with “Tranquillity” instead? Ah yes, that competition!

Although Stephen Colbert, presenter and award-winning comedian on “The Colbert Report”, was denied having Node 3, NASA did recognise his efforts and named the brand new microgravity treadmill after him. The Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (or COLBERT), is not only to remember Stephen’s landslide public vote, it is also a marvel in acronym construction.

Although space scientists are not so keen on naming components of the space station after Colbert, zoologists don’t have the same concerns about naming something after a living person. Two entomologists, Quentin Wheeler at Arizona State University and Kelly Miller at the University of New Mexico, have named a Venezuelan diving beetle after him, the mighty Agaporomorphus colberti. This is in honour of Colbert’s 45th birthday on May 13th.

Although it is great to be named after a small creature that enjoys paddling in the depths of South American ponds, I wonder if it’s any match for being named after an orbiting running machine for astronauts? After reading the honours list in the beetle world, I think I’d still prefer to have the unique privilage of astronauts saying, “I’m off to the COLBERT to stave off any muscle wastage…”

The pair have named beetles to honor the late rock ‘n’ roll legend Roy Orbison and his widow Barbara (Orectochilus orbisonorum); for fictional “Star Wars” character Darth Vader (Agathidium vaderi); and for former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Agathidium bushi, A. cheneyi and A. rumsfeldi).

Agathidium vaderi? No way! Can I get one as a pet?

Still, good for Wheeler and Kelly. They’ve drummed up some interest in diving beetles and created some popular media attention for their area of science.

What does this have to do with space? Not a lot, just thought Agaporomorphus colberti sounded cool.


The Space Station Flares, Again!

I don’t usually post two identical stories within a few days of one another, but when I saw this image on I had to comment on it. On Friday, I was captivated by the astounding astrophotography by Nicolas Biver as he tracked the space station with video camera and telescope, to capture some great detail of the manned outpost as it passed over France. With a bit of luck and a whole world of skill, Biver observed a bright space station flare.

Next up, it’s the turn of Martin Gembec. On May 2nd, he grabbed this superb trail as the station passed through the distinctive edge-on disk of our galaxy over the Czech Republic. What’s more, the station flared as its huge solar arrays reflected sunlight through Gembec’s ‘scope… right at the moment when the station travelled through the hazy starlit disk of the Milky Way.

The ISS flares as it passes through the Milky Way's disk (©Martin Gembec)
The ISS flares as it passes through the Milky Way's disk (©Martin Gembec)

We were watching a bright flyby of the space station when the ISS surprised us with a big flare in the Milky Way,” said Gembec. “At maximum, the ISS reached magnitude -8.”

A magnitude of -8 makes this flare a beast; that’s 25× brighter than Venus and 400× brighter than the star Sirius.

In the photo above, there is a rather ominous piece of kit attached to a boom reaching into the centre of the image. This is a reflection of Gembec’s Canon 30D camera (that took the picture as the ISS passed overhead) in an all-sky mirror. The mirror is in a concave shape to collect the starlight from the sky, bouncing the light into the camera lens. It acts much like a satellite dish; except it doesn’t bounce and focus radio waves into an antenna, the all-sky mirror reflects visible light and focuses it into the open camera shutter. As you can see, the results are visually stunning.

Source: Space Weather

Space Station Flare Captured On Film

I’ve been watching this short video clip over and over. It may only be two seconds long, but it is such a unique view of the space station that I find it mesmerizing. Each time the animated GIF loops, another detail seems to reveal itself.

The ISS flare, as observed by Nicolas Biver from Versailles, France, on April 28th (©Nicolas Biver)
The ISS flare, as observed by Nicolas Biver from Versailles, France, on April 28th (©Nicolas Biver)

It’s also kinda hypnotizing in a rhythmic way; the space station appears to turn and boost away into the black of space, but just before its massive solar arrays capture the sunlight, dazzling the observer with a flash.

Is it me, or are those solar panels reminiscent of the sails hoisted up the masts of canon-touting battleships before the age of iron-hulled vessels and steam-powered engines? These slightly fuzzy images could even be from the turn of the 20th Century, when one of the first movie cameras filmed a ship steering out of port.

Of course, this isn’t a wooden ocean-going ship, it’s the space station, in orbit. And the video was taken with a modern digital camera through a 16-inch Dobsonian telescope by a highly skilled amateur astronomer called Nicolas Biver from Versailles, France. The reason why the station appears to “turn” is because the perspective of the observer changes as the station flies overhead, he did a great job of tracking it.

On April 28th, Biver tracked the space station through his ‘scope. Whether it was intentional or not, he was fortunate to capture an intense flare as the space station’s solar panels reflected sunlight at his location. The resulting flare was much brighter than Venus (after the Moon, the station is the second brightest object in the night sky). Usually when I hear about observations of flares made by stuff in orbit, I usually think of Iridium flares that occur at predictable times and locations, providing a target for observers on the ground to capture a meteor-like streak across the sky. The Iridium satellite network provides a great chance for astronomers to see the reflected light when the angle between them, the satellite’s solar panels and Sun is just right.

My astronomer friend Tavi Greiner (who has just joined the Astrocast.TV team as host of Our Night Sky, be sure to check it out!) is very skilled at observing the Iridium flare-ups, and as can be seen in this image, those things are bright.

However, on the 28th, it was the space station’s turn to reflect some light for Nicolas Biver.

In March, Space Shuttle Discovery completed the construction of the ISS solar arrays during the STS-119 mission. Over a series of space walks, the solar array had its area boosted to 16,000 square feet. With this extra surface area, comes the potential for very bright flaring events.

For the chance to view the ISS and possible flaring, check out’s Simple Satellite Tracker.

Source: Space Weather