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India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) successfully fired its engine for 23 minutes today, November 30 Eastern Standard Time (EST; December 1 Indian Standard Time), to begin its 10 month trek to Mars.
MOM, or Mangalyaan-1 as it is sometimes called, has been circling Earth since launch on November 5. A series of engine burns gradually raised the orbit until it was in the proper position for trans-Mars injection (TMI) -- the engine burn conducted today.
Arrival at Mars is scheduled for September 2014. MOM will enter an elliptical, rather than circular, orbit around Mars that is 350 x 80,000 kilometers. MOM carries five scientific instruments, including one that will search for methane in the atmosphere, but is primarily a technology test to demonstrate that India can build and launch a spacecraft that attains Martian orbit. If successful, it will be the first Asian country to do so. Japan's attempt to place a spacecraft (Nozomi) in orbit around Mars failed. China had a small orbiter (Yinghuo-1) on Russia's doomed Phobos-Grunt mission.
Europe, Russia/Soviet Union and the United States have successfully placed spacecraft in Martian orbit. The U.S. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey spacecraft, and Europe's Mars Express, are currently operating there, and NASA's MAVEN is on the way (it will arrive at Mars about the same time as MOM). Only the United States has successfully landed spacecraft on the surface. Two are currently operating: Opportunity and Curiosity. Several other U.S. and Russian/Soviet Mars probes, and one other European Mars spacecraft, failed.
Wary planetary scientists joke about the Galactic Ghoul, a monster inhabiting space that eats Mars-bound spacecraft. Time will tell if MOM avoids it.
UPDATE 2, November 30, 2013: SpaceX's Emily Shanklin replies that yes, "Monday is the earliest possible date." No other details. Meanwhile, Bill Harwood of CBS News reports that if the launch does, indeed, go on Monday, the launch window is 5:41 - 7:07 pm ET.
UPDATE: November 30, 2013. Latest word from several sources on Twitter (but not SpaceX itself) is that the launch will not take place until Monday at the earliest. We've asked SpaceX for an official update and will post it when we get it.
ORIGINAL STORY, November 29, 2013: SpaceX's website and Twitter feeds are silent, but other sources suggest that the company will try again tomorrow (Saturday) to launch SES-8.
The launch was scrubbed three times on Monday, and twice yesterday. The last words from @elonmusk yesterday were that they would bring the "rocket down [in order] to borescope engines" and "If the launch aborts" (as it did) it would be "a few days before the next attempt."
Not long after yesterday's scrub, however, word began circulating that another attempt might be made as early as tomorrow, Saturday, November 30. While SpaceX had nothing to say, @Jeff_Foust noted that the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is advertising that the launch is scheduled for 6:46 pm EST tomorrow.
Not that there isn't a lot to be thankful for, and not that it wasn't an interesting day, but the two big space events that were supposed to take place this Thanksgiving Day fizzled out: Comet ISON and SpaceX's first launch to a geostationary transfer orbit.
Scientists were hoping that Comet ISON would survive its close encounter with the Sun early this afternoon Eastern Standard Time (EST), but it soon became clear that if any part of it did, it wasn't much. NASA had several of its spacecraft trained on the Sun to keep track of ISON as it came within a million miles of the Sun's surface, but for most of the critical time around 1:30 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST), nothing of the comet's nucleus was visible. After the time of the closest approach was well over and some scientists were calling it a day, something -- they still are not sure what -- was seen in an image from the NASA/ESA SOHO spacecraft that might possibly suggest that remnants might still be there. Scientists are continuing to debate it as Thursday draws to a close EST. Phil Plait, well known as the "Bad Astronomer" posted on his Slate site that "predicting comets is like predicting cats. Good luck with that."
The second big event was SpaceX's rescheduled launch of the SES-8 communications satellite, SpaceX's first attempt to place a satellite into geostationary transfer orbit. The countdown proceeded perfectly to a 5:39 pm EST launch, but an instant before T-0, the onboard computer aborted the launch. The launch window was 65 minutes long and SpaceX recycled the count hoping it could diagnose and remedy the problem and still launch today. It reset the clock to T-32 minutes and 7 seconds for a launch at 6:44 pm EST and resumed the count. But with just 48 seconds to go, the company called it off. SpaceX CTO Elon Musk tweeted (@elonmusk): "We called manual abort. Better to be paranoid than wrong. Bringing rocket down to borescope engines..." That means it will be a few days before they try again.
More than Turkey, Football and Parades for Thanksgiving - Comet ISON and SpaceX Add To the Festivities
Yes, tomorrow is Thanksgiving and we all will be focused on our tummys and television, but be sure to add these to your to-do list: NASA's coverage of Comet ISON's encounter with the Sun, and SpaceX's second attempt to launch SES-8.
Whatever you do, DON'T look at the Sun to see Comet ISON as it passes a million miles from the Sun's surface. Very bad for your eyes. Instead, watch NASA TV which will be airing a Google+ hangout where scientists with the proper equipment will be following the action. That's from 1:00 - 3:30 pm ET. Nobody knows how much of ISON will remain after tomorrow, but if all or part of it survives, people in the Northern Hemisphere will be able to see it with the unaided eye probably next week. If you can't get your friends and family to watch NASA TV, but want to keep up to date, there are several Twitter accounts for ISON. Our favorite is Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society (@elakdawalla), but she may be busy with Thanksgiving herself. You can also try Phil Plait @BadAstronomer, Comet ISON @CometISONnews, and NASA Goddard (@NASAGoddard).
Then, just a few hours later, SpaceX will try again to launch SES-8, its first launch to a geostationary transfer orbit. This is really important for the future of the Falcon 9 rocket and SpaceX's business case. The launch window at Cape Canaveral. FL is open from 5:38 - 6:44 pm ET. SpaceX will webcast the launch on its website beginning at 5:00 pm ET. Follow @SpaceX or @ElonMusk for updates, too.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving!
At about 1:25 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) on Thanksgiving Day, Comet ISON will pass within 1 million miles of the Sun. Whether that is its last hurrah or survives to dazzle the people of Earth for another day is literally up in the air. Scientists are divided on the comet's likely fate after it encounters the Sun.
During a NASA media teleconference today, Carey Lisse from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL) gave the comet just a 30 percent chance of survival, but stressed "That's one man's opinion" and he woud be happy to be proved wrong.
Comet ISON was first observed in September 2012 by two Russian astronomers and immediately got the attention of the astrophysics, heliophysics, and planetary science communities. An analysis of its orbit shows that it is a rare comet coming in towards the Sun for the first time ever in the history of the Solar System, Lisse said. It is from the Oort cloud at the outer boundary of the Solar System where comets left over from the formation of the Solar System exist in a rather haphazard collection of different orbits. What makes this one so special is that it is pristine, until now untouched by solar forces that will change it forever. Karl Battams, an astrophysicist at the Naval Research Lab, said that whatever happens to ISON after it grazes the Sun it "has already been a huge victory for science."
Comet ISON, November 19, 2013, three minute exposure taken with 14-inch telescope at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. Image credit: NASA/MSFC/Aaron Kingery.
Part of the reason the scientific community has learned so much is because the comet's trajectory took it past a surprising number of spacecraft that could take a look. NASA planetary science division director Jim Green listed NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft (also known as EPOXI), the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars, and MESSENGER, which is orbiting Mercury. The newly-launched MAVEN spacecraft also may be able to sudy ISON with its ultraviolet (uv) spectrometer once that instrument is activated in a few weeks if ISON survives the solar encounter. Michael Garcia from NASA's astrophysics division and Battams added a list of ground, air and space-based astrophysics and heliophysics assets being used to study it in a variety of wavelengths: Hubble (optical), Chandra (x-ray), Spitzer (infrared), and SWIFT (gamma ray/x-ray/optical/uv) space telescopes; the NASA/ESA SOHO and NASA's SDO and STEREO-A heliophysics satellites; sounding rockets; and the airborne Stratospheric Observatory For Intrared Astronomy (SOFIA). Green called ISON "perhaps the most observed comet from a NASA perspective ever."
Despite all that observing, scientific opinion is split on ISON's fate. The loose collection of dust and ice, which is about 1.5 miles in diameter, "has been in a deep freeze for 4.5 billion years" and will go from that "to the furnace of the Sun" on Thursday, Lisse said. It has been "behaving oddly" compared to other comets, Battams explained, but it is important that people understand "We've never seen a comet like this that is both dynamically new from the Oort cloud and in a Sun-grazing orbit. So we've seen plenty of Oort cloud comets, lots and lots of Sun grazers. We've never seen the combination."
The close approach to the Sun on Thursday will not be visible by people without special equipment because it is so close to the Sun. NASA will host a Google+ Hangout that will be broadcast on NASA TV from 1:00-3:30 pm ET as Battams and other scientists follow the encounter.
If it survives, Lisse says it should be visible in the Northern Hemisphere about 10 days - 2 weeks after November 28 just before sunrise or just after sunset in the direction of the Sun. APL will hold a meeting on December 6, 2013, which will be livestreamed, to discuss what scientists have gleaned to date. They hope to learn more about how the solar system formed as well as about the Sun as it interacts with the comet, which could be important to understanding space weather.
UPDATE: SpaceX issued the following statement--"We observed unexpected readings with the first stage liquid oxygen system so we decided to investigate. The launch vehicle and satellite are in great shape and we are looking forward to the next launch opportunity on Thursday at 5:38 Eastern time."
ORIGINAL STORY: SpaceX tried, but ultimately failed, to get its Falcon 9 rocket off the launch pad today with the SES-8 communications satellite. This is the first launch of a Falcon 9 to geostationary transfer orbit. Thursday is the next possible launch opportunity.
The weather was excellent for the launch today and everything was proceeding towards an on-time launch at 5:37 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST), with the launch window open until 6:43 pm EST.
SpaceX stopped the clock at T-13 minutes, however, because it was working to fix a valve problem on the first stage.
They fixed that problem and recycled the count for launch at 5:54 pm EST. This time the clock got down to T-6:11 minutes when the autosequencer called a hold as the Falcon 9 was about to go to internal power. SpaceX determined it needed to change a telemetry limit on a power supply.
That task was completed expeditiously and the count resumed again with a new launch time of 6:30 pm EST. In this case, the third time was NOT the charm, however. One of the SpaceX launch personnel could be heard on SpaceX's webcast calling "hold, hold, hold" -- the signal that something had gone awry -- at T-3:40.
With that, the launch was scrubbed since there was not enough time in the launch window for another attempt today. A SpaceX launch commentator said the problem was related to the liquid oxygen pressurization system and an "off-nominal condition" developed.
SpaceX could try again on Thursday (Thanksgiving Day), when the launch window will be one minute later than today, so 5:38-6:44 pm EST. Whether or not it does try on Thursday depends on what the problem is and how long it will take to remedy.
In a pre-launch media teleconference yesterday, the Chief Technical Officer of the customer for the launch, satellite services provider SES, was effusive in his praise for SpaceX. He believes SpaceX is a game-changer in the launch services industry. The company has a lot riding on this launch.
A day before SpaceX is to launch a communications satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit for the first time, the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the satellite's owner, SES, was effusive in his praise of SpaceX as a "game-changer" in the launch services industry.
SES CTO Martin Halliwell said in a pre-launch media teleconference this afternoon that SpaceX's entry into the launch services market is a "game-changer that will shake the industry to its roots." He said other launch services providers are very interested in this launch and "rather worried for their future and how they organize themselves and their industrial processes to be competitive in the commercial launch market."
Price is a dominant factor in SpaceX's attractiveness, Halliwell said. In an email exchange later, however, SES spokesman Yves Feltes replied "no comment whatsoever" in response to a SpacePolicyOnline.com question about how much SpaceX is charging SES for this launch either as a dollar amount or a percentage difference from other providers.
Halliwell also cited the "close relationship" SES has with SpaceX as being different from other launch providers.
The satellite, SES-8, is headed to geostationary orbit (GEO), 35,800 kilometers (km) above the equator, but SpaceX's Falcon 9 v1.1's job is only to get it into an intermediate Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) at 295 x 80,000 km. Attaining that orbit requires restarting the Falcon 9 v1.1's second stage. An attempt to test that on the first launch of this version of the Falcon 9 in September failed, but SpaceX and SES are clearly satisfied that the problem was rectified. SpaceX CTO Elon Musk and President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell confirmed at the media teleconference today that the problem was a frozen fuel line on the igniter. They resolved it by adding more insulation. Halliwell said SES is 'very, very confident" that the issue is understood and "pretty confident the risk from that particular element has been retired" and "we are ready to launch."
Halliwell's comments are somewhat unusual prior to launch. Unbridled enthusiasm for a launch services provider typically comes after a satellite is successfully inserted into orbit.
The launch window tomorrow (Monday, November 25) opens at 5:37 pm ET. SpaceX will webcast the launch on its website.
The following space policy-related events may be of interest in the next two weeks. The House and Senate have recessed for the Thanksgiving holiday. The House will return on December 2; the Senate not until December 9.
During the Weeks
The coming week is quiet from a policy perspective because of Thanksgiving, with one notable exception -- the scheduled launch tomorrow of SpaceX's Falcon 9 v1.1 on its first geostationary trip. This is only the second launch of the v1.1. The first flight in September was successful for the mission it launched that day, but an important test to reignite the second stage failed. SpaceX needs that second stage reignition for the launch tomorrow, which will place SES-8, a commercial communications satellite for satellite services provider SES, into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). That is an intermediate orbit at 295 x 80,000 kilometers (km). Getting the rest of the way to geostationary orbit (GEO) 35,800 kilometers above the equator is performed by a different motor that is not in Falcon 9's job jar. Many commercial communications satellites need to get to GTO, so a lot of SpaceX's future is riding on Falcon 9's performance tomorrow. The launch window at Cape Canaveral opens at 5:37 pm ET. The launch will be webcast on SpaceX's website. Weather is 80 percent favorable.
(Other launches are scheduled during the week, including two others tomorrow, but we don't track all launches, just those with particular space policy relevance.)
The first week of December has a number of interesting meetings and conferences, notably the 8th Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC. The topic this year is "Disruptive (Game-Changing) Space Technologies, Laws and Policies." Registration is free, but seating is limited so you must register in advance.
Monday, November 25
And the Next Week...
Tuesday, December 3
Tuesday-Wednesday, December 3-4
Wednesday, December 4
Wednesday-Thursday, December 4-5
Thursday, December 5
Friday, December 6
SpaceX is on track for its first attempt to launch a satellite to geostationary orbit (GEO) on Monday, November 25, 2013. The new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket will launch SES-8, a commercial communications satellite for satellite services provider SES.
The launch will take place from Cape Canaveral, FL, and the launch window opens at 5:37 pm EST. Weather is forecast to be 80 percent favorable for the launch, which will be webcast on SpaceX's website.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted today (@elonmusk) that it will be "toughest mission to date. Requires coast + upper stage restart + going to 80,000 km altitude (~1/4 way to Moon)."
The upper stage restart portion of the mission has been an area of concern since the first launch of this version of the Falcon 9 in September. During that launch, a second stage restart was tested. It was not required for the success of that particular mission, which was fortunate because the test failed. SES and the insurers of the SES-8 satellite needed to be sure SpaceX understood and remedied the problem. SpaceX reportedly concluded that the problem was frozen fuel lines and has added insulation to avoid a repeat, according to Spaceflightnow.com.
The Falcon 9 rocket actually gets the satellite only part of the way to GEO, to an orbit called Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). That elliptical orbit is 295 x 80,000 kilometers. A separate motor boosts it the rest of the way to GEO, which is about 35,800 km above the equator. A satellite there rotates at the same rate as the Earth so keeps a fixed position relative to a point on Earth, hence the term geostationary.
The SES-8 launch is very important for SpaceX, which is endeavoring to bring the commercial space launch market back to the United States. Few commercial launches take place from the United States these days. The market for launching geostationary satellites like SES-8 is dominated by Russia's Proton and Europe's Ariane V, with Russia's Sea Launch system trying to gain ground. China also seeks to be a player in this market, but U.S. restrictions on exporting satellites to China that contain any U.S. components sharply limits its success. The U.S. Atlas V and Delta IV rockets are used almost exclusively for U.S. government satellites largely because they are too costly for most customers. Lockheed Martin recently signed a contract for a commercial launch for the government of Mexico using the Atlas V, however. The price was not disclosed.
The White House nominated Dave Radzanowski to be NASA's new Chief Financial Officer (CFO) today. If confirmed, he would succeed Beth Robinson who is awaiting confirmation herself as Under Secretary of the Department of Energy.
Radzanowski, or Radz as he is often called, is currently NASA Chief of Staff. Prior to that, he was Deputy Associate Administrator for Program Integration for the Space Operations Mission Directorate.
Prior to joining NASA in 2006, Radzanowski was Branch Chief for Science and Space at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Before that, he was a space policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the non-partisan research and analysis arm of the U.S. Congress. He holds a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an M.S. from Carnegie Mellon University.
In a statement, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said "having come from the worlds of both budget and space exploration, Radz is uniquely suited to stepping into the role of NASA CFO."
In a controversial move, the Senate voted today to change its rules so nominations like this one can be approved with a simple majority vote (51 votes) rather than a filibuster-proof 60 votes. That could make it easier for the Robinson and Radzanowski nominations to be confirmed, but a single Senator still can place a hold on any nomination for any reason, so the timing remains up in the air.
Events of Interest