This Month in Space: August 2016

Welcome back to TMiS! This month was a big one for commercial space interests, with a sprinkling of international news and a heady dose of good old-fashioned astronomy.


Let’s start this party with a bang. Does everyone remember June’s test of the Space Launch System (SLS) Solid Rocket Booster (SRB)? Pretty exciting display of the sheer power that solid rockets can deliver. This month gave us another look at June’s test, when NASA posted High Dynamic-Range (HDR) footage of that same test. Have a look below:

HDR footage works by recording multiple exposures, and then combining those exposures into one image. The result is an image that shows you things that conventional imaging cannot. Compare the video above with the footage from June’s test:

See the difference in the plume? That HDR footage is pretty darn exciting to anybody with an interest in fluid mechanics.

Arianespace puts up two birds with one rocket

On August 24, in an exciting mission with practically no margin for error, French aerospace juggernaut Arianespace successfully delivered Intelsat-33e and Intelsat-36 with a single Ariane 5 rocket in a 5 ECA configuration.

The Ariane 5 is a pretty reliable workhorse, and is expected to be succeeded by the Ariane 6 in 2020.

Jade Rabbit hops its last

The nearly three-year mission of China’s plucky lunar rover Yutu has ended.

So long, little buddy.

The lunar environment is a difficult one. Unprotected by a magnetic field, our lonely moon is unprotected from the charged particles thrown off by solar activity — making radiation mitigation a serious issue for moonbots (and potential moonpeople!). The existence of dynamic electric fields [PDF]on the moon is also a concern.

And thanks for everything.

Despite all of these difficulties, and despite losing mobility about a month and a half after landing, Yutu was able to send back information about the lunar environment for some 31 months— making it the longest-lasting lunar rover ever.

All aboard the Moon Express!

As one robotic lunar mission ends, another is about to begin — although the story really begins nearly a decade ago, in 2007.

The Google Lunar X-Prize (GLXP) offers a $20-million prize to any team which can can land a robot on the moon, drive it around a little bit, and send back some data. (The initial goal had a 2012 deadline, but it turns out that space is hard).

Some 33 teams from around the world signed up to take on the challenge — and after some drop-outs and buy-outs, 16 now remain. Two clear leaders are out in front of the pack: the Israeli team SpaceIL, and the American Moon Express.

A rendering of Moon Express’ ME-1.

The big news this month from the American team is that they’ve been granted permission by the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to deliver a package to the moon in late 2017, making it the first private American team to be granted such a privilege.

Their chief competitor for the GLXP, SpaceIL, has already paid the deposit for their flight on a SpaceX Falcon 9 for late 2017 as well — so expect the race to heat up significantly over the next twelve months! I’ll certainly be watching closely.

The competition!

SpaceX a go-go

Never a dull moment from Everyone’s Favourite Rocket Company! They’ve made their sixth successful first-stage landing on their drone ship Of Course I Still Love You on August 13, after successfully delivering the American-built, Japanese-operated JCSAT-16 into a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).

I say never a dull moment, but I can’t help but feel that they’ve made launches mundane and routine! In this highly-scientific measure of SpaceX launch popularity, you can see the total number of Reddit points lurching downwards over the past six landings.

Not exactly peer-reviewed.

That said, a new milestone is on the horizon! SES, formerly Société Européenne des Satellites, has announced that they’ve booked a launch on a used Falcon 9 first stage! Making the brilliant PR decision of referring to the first-stage as “flight-proven” (brilliant!), they expect to launch at the end of the year. A successful mission will finally demonstrate that SpaceX can close the reusability loop, validating a business case, and finally proving that a revolution in spaceflight is at hand. Hyperbolic? I don’t think so.

Now THIS is what I call hyperbolic.

One ring to rule them all...

Last month, SpaceX delivered a docking ring, called the International Docking Adapter (IDA) to the International Space Station (ISS) in the trunk of a Dragon spacecraft. That docking ring is the critical piece of hardware for mating commercial spacecraft to the ISS, and is a standard design that will allow for a greater variety of spacecraft to dock. The IDA was finally installed this month — and with any luck, it will be used soon!

And in the darkness, bind them.

This is the triumphant last chapter in a saga fraught with misfortune. The IDA was supposed to have been delivered by another Falcon 9 rocket in June of last year, but the rocket underwent a Rapid Unplanned Disassembly (RUD) on the way up, resulting in a complete loss of the Falcon 9 rocket, Dragon spacecraft, and all cargo.

Papers, please.

If humanity’s greatest era of exploration is ahead of us, we’re going to have to do some serious research to figure out how to do it properly. To that end, a new scientific journal has been announced.

REACH is a brand-new Elsevier journal covering human spaceflight, and I’m sure several great papers will be published there. Problems with the peer review process and grievances surrounding academic paywalls notwithstanding, a new journal on human spaceflight is a bellwether for the intentions of the scientific and engineering community. Here’s hoping that impact factor stays up, I guess. The first issue is online, and free to access.

First hit’s free, kid.

In contrast, NASA has opened up access to public-funded research with a new research access portal called PubSpace, operated under the National Institutes of Health (NIH) PubMed Central. Take a look at some papers here!

It’s on the house.

There’s a change in the solar wind, and I think NASA knows which way it’s blowing. Either way, when big institutions make moves like these, you know something’s up.

Live, from Sol-c, it’s Saturday Night (June 2, 2012)

Long-time readers will recognize that I like to end with the big-picture stuff. I typically keep discussion to the topic of spaceflight, but every once in a while there’s a topic that’s so compelling that it bears mention.

Since 1988, some 3500 planets orbiting other suns have been discovered — with the vast overwhelming number of them having been discovered in the past two years or so .

I like those odds.

Despite the wealth of worlds that seem to surround us, I would like to point out one in particular for your attention. At a distance of approximately 4.25 light years, the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri is the star closest to our own Sun — and it turns out that it has a planet of its own. Further, it turns out that this planet is within Proxima Centauri’s habitable zone. This planet, dubbed Proxima-b, has a mass about about 1.27 times that of Earth.

Hey there, neighbour.

And that’s about all we know about it, for now. Perhaps future measurements will indicate that it has an atmosphere, and that atmosphere contains water? Perhaps we can get an object travelling at 20% the speed of light, in which case it will take it about 20 years to get there? Perhaps we’ll get a good look at its surface and see something familiar?

Perhaps not…

But perhaps.

Past issues of TMiS can be found here.

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