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ESA Gets Better View of Schiaparelli Impact Site, But Mysteries Remain

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Oct-2016 (Updated: 27-Oct-2016 07:08 PM)

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has provided a higher resolution image of the site where the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Schiaparelli lander impacted the Martian surface, but some of the features in the image remain unexplained.  Schiaparelli is part of ESA's ExoMars program and was designed to demonstrate technologies needed for the next phase of the program -- a Russian lander and ESA rover to be launched in 2020.  Understanding exactly what happened is crucial for the 2020 mission.

Schiaparelli was launched together with ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) in March. The two made the trip to Mars together, separating on October 16, three days before arrival at Mars. TGO successfully entered orbit, but contact was lost with Schiaparelli during its descent. 

It was located two days later using the low resolution CTX camera on MRO.  The image indicated that the lander crashed into the surface at a high velocity after separating from its parachute and heat shield.   ESA has been awaiting a second pass over the site by MRO to obtain an image with its high resolution camera, HiRISE.

That image was taken on October 25 and released to the public today. It shows three impact areas, highlighted in the image below, within 1.5 kilometers of each other.

High resolution image of Mars surface where ESA's Schiaparelli lander impacted, taken by HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, October 25, 2016.  Image credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.  Inserts are 6-fold enlargements, brightness was adjusted separately for each inset to better show details.

As shown in the image, the parachute and the rear section of the heat shield (also called the back shell, to which the parachute was attached) landed adjacent to each other (bottom left). The front section of the heat shield separated from the rest of the spacecraft as planned and landed further away (top right).  A shallow crater, perhaps half a meter deep, in between is where the lander reached the surface and, presumably, exploded.  Data that ESA received from Schiaparelli before it went silent indicate that the parachute and back shell released prematurely and nine thrusters that should have slowed the spacecraft fired for only a few seconds, so the fuel tank would have been relatively full.  ESA estimates that the spacecraft was in free-fall for the final 2-4 kilometers of its journey and impacted the surface at a velocity of as much as 300 kilometers/hour.

ESA said today that the "asymmetric surrounding dark markings" near the crater "are more difficult to interpret."  Also, the "long dark arc" to the upper right of the crater "is currently unexplained."  Both could be related to the impact and presumed explosion, ESA added, but more analysis is needed.

Schiaparelli and TGO are the first two of four spacecraft that comprise ESA's ExoMars program, which it is conducting cooperatively with Russia's Roscosmos state space corporation.  Initially ExoMars was an ESA-NASA program, but the Obama Administration declined to fund NASA's portion and ESA turned to Russia instead.  

The other two spacecraft -- a Russian lander and an ESA rover -- are scheduled for launch in 2020 (delayed from 2018). Schiaparelli was designed to test entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies in preparation for the lander/rover mission.  Only the United States has successfully landed spacecraft on Mars. Seven of eight attempts since 1976 have succeeded:  Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Curiosity.  Only the 1999 Mars Polar Lander failed.  One of the four landers sent to Mars by the Soviet Union in the 1970s sent back data after landing, but for less than 20 seconds so is not considered a success.  The United Kingdom sent the Beagle 2 lander to Mars along with ESA's Mars Express in 2003, but it landed in a semi-deployed manner and was unable to communicate.

ESA Director General Jan Woerner stresses that TGO is fully successful and will conduct its planned science program to study trace gases in the Martian atmosphere that may reveal whether life ever existed there, and serve as a communications relay for the 2020 lander/rover.  He also considers Schiaparelli a success in the sense that entry into the atmosphere and deployment of the parachute worked as planned and they will gain data from the investigation that will be important to the success of the 2020 mission.

Clinton Wants Balanced NASA Program With Climate Change Research and Exploration Partnerships

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Oct-2016 (Updated: 25-Oct-2016 11:42 PM)

Jim Kohlenberger, who served in both the Obama and Bill Clinton administrations, published an op-ed in Space News today laying out Hillary Clinton's civil space agenda.  Clinton wants a balanced NASA program with a focus on climate change research as well as a "robust" exploration program, all in partnership with the international and commercial communities.

Kohlenberger was chief of staff for the Obama White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from 2009-2011.  During Bill Clinton's presidency, he was Senior Domestic Policy Advisor to Vice President Al Gore.   Currently he is President of JK Strategies, a public policy consulting practice, and Executive Director of the Center for Copyright Information. 

This is the third op-ed in the trade publication providing information on the candidates' views on space.  The first two, published last week (on civil space issues) and yesterday (on national security space) were from two representatives of the Trump campaign, Bob Walker and Peter Navarro.  Trump himself also spoke about NASA briefly today.

Kohlenberger's op-ed, like those from the Trump campaign, is very broad and offers few specifics, but provides an overview of Clinton's views on civil space issues.  She will "advance American ideals" through a balanced program of science, technology and exploration and promote strong coordination across the federal government as well as "cooperation with industry and collaboration with the international community."  That includes efforts to "deepen support for strong public-private partnerships."

While he does not say that Clinton would reestablish a White House National Space Council, as Walker and Navarro said Trump would do, he states that she "will elevate executive branch coordination of federal space agency initiatives."  He does not specify the mechanism for accomplishing that goal.

The need for NASA and NOAA to engage in climate change research is specifically called out.  Kohlenberger criticizes Trump's opinion that climate change is "a hoax," stating that it is not just "shortsighted," but endangers space exploration since launch sites in Florida and Virginia are vulnerable to rising sea levels.  Clinton "knows that climate change is an urgent threat" and NASA and NOAA programs to study it are "invaluable."

As for exploration, Clinton is committed to a program that includes the International Space Station (ISS), commercial space leadership, bold missions into deep space, and the commercial crew program. 

"Secretary Clinton knows that, just like taking on challenges here on Earth, the strongest way to explore and utilize space is by doing so together" with international and commercial partners. 

At a top level, except for climate change research, the Trump and Clinton positions seem fairly similar.  Both endorse public private partnerships, the need for better coordination within the federal government, and a strong human exploration program beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).  However, they both also lack specifics about whether they support the ongoing beyond LEO programs: the Space Launch System, Orion, and the Asteroid Redirect Mission.

What's Happening in Space Policy October 24-29, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Oct-2016 (Updated: 23-Oct-2016 05:56 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of October 24-29, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until November 14.

During the Week

Commercial space policy is at the top of the list this week. The FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) and its working groups meet on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday.  Those will be preceded by two associated meetings of interest -- one tomorrow (Monday) afternoon to discuss voluntary industry standards and another Tuesday morning on a Civil Space Traffic Management system. 

Tomorrow's meeting is of ASTM International, a standards setting body, that will discuss whether it should create a new technical committee to develop voluntary consensus standards for commercial spaceflight.  Last year's Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) called for the development of such standards and COMSTAC has had a working group on the topic for some time.  Tuesday morning, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST), in conjunction with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and the Satellite Industry Association, will hold an "industry day" (actually half a day) to discuss a Civil Space Traffic Management System.  The meeting is open to the public and has an interesting agenda that includes Doug Loverro, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy.   Space Traffic Management (STM) is a step beyond Space Situational Awareness (SSA).  While definitions vary, generally speaking SSA is knowing where everything is in orbit and where it's going, thereby enabling "conjunction analyses" to warn satellite operators if a collision is likely.  STM - with an emphasis on "management" --  would empower some entity to require those operators to take action to avoid a collision.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine has proposed that FAA/AST be assigned that role.  CSLCA called for a study by an independent organization on alternative frameworks for STM.  To date, FAA/AST has focused on the SSA portion.  FAA/AST is part of the Department of Transportation, which sent a report to Congress last month concluding it is feasible for them to take over DOD's role of providing SSA data to commercial and foreign entities (CFEs).  All of this likely will be discussed on Tuesday.

Separately, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is beginning a new Aerospace Security Project and its first meeting (tomorrow afternoon) is also looking at commercial space.  Loverro will be at that one, too, along with Scott Pace of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute and representatives of DigitalGlobe, Planet, and Boeing.  That discussion will focus on how the military can better leverage commercial space capabilities.

Elsewhere in the country, the American Astronautical Society (AAS) will hold its annual Von Braun Symposium in Huntsville, AL.  This year's theme is "Exploring the Universe and Maintaining U.S. Leadership in Space."   Among the sessions is one on Wednesday morning  where Scott Pace (GWU) and Ann Zulkosky (Lockheed Martin) will discuss "After the Election -- What's Next for Space?"  The symposium will be webcast.  Note that all times on the agenda are Central Daylight Time.

There are quite a few space science meetings, too.  The NASA Advisory Council's Heliophysics Subcommittee meets via telecon on Tuesday from 10:00 am - 4:00 pm ET.  Heliophysics is the study of the Sun and its influence on Earth -- space weather -- and NASA and the National Air and Space Museum will have a panel discussion on the impact of space weather on human and robotic exploration missions at the same time (1:00-2:30 pm ET).  The full NAC Science Committee meets Wednesday and Thursday (also via telecon).  The NSF-NASA-DOE Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC) meets at NSF in Arlington, VA on Thursday and Friday. 

The American Society for Gravitational and Space Research meets in Cleveland from Tuesday-Saturday.  It will hold a pre-conference workshop Tuesday morning entitled "Nanoracks and Blue Origin."   Some of the conference sessions will be webcast, including a luncheon talk on Wednesday by former Senate staffer Jeff Bingham on evolving U.S. civil space policy and the role of the International Space Station.  NASA's Julie Robinson and Brian Motil have a session right after that on "15 Years of Microgravity Science on the ISS" that also will be webcast.  Lots of interesting sessions throughout the week.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, October 24

Monday-Thursday, October 24-27

Tuesday, October 25

Tuesday-Thursday, October 25-27

Wednesday, October 26

  • FAA COMSTAC (full committee), NTSB Conference Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington, DC, 9:00 am - 4:00 pm ET (webcast)

Wednesday-Thursday, October 26-27

Wednesday-Saturday, October 26-29

Thursday-Friday, October 27-28

Found: One European Mars Lander, No Longer Intact

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Oct-2016 (Updated: 27-Oct-2016 07:03 PM)

Imagery from a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars has located the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Schiaparelli lander.  ESA lost contact with the lander two days ago mid-way through its descent to the planet's surface.  The image suggests that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of 2-4 kilometers, probably because the thrusters cut off early.  It "may have" exploded on contact with the surface since the fuel tanks would have been full, but ESA cautions that these are only preliminary interpretations.

The image was taken by the low-resolution CTX camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been orbiting Mars since 2006.  MRO will make another pass over the site next week and use its high-resolution HiRISE camera to image the area again. [UPDATE: ESA released the image on October 27.]

Today's image has a resolution of 6 meters per pixel and shows two new features on the surface compared to an image taken in May.  ESA concluded that one feature is Schiaparelli's 12-meter diameter parachute and the other is from the lander's impact with the surface.

Top:  mosaic of images of Schiaparelli landing area from MRO and NASA's Mars Odyssey.
Bottom: MRO imagery of surface of Mars showing before (left) and after (right) images of location where ESA's Schiaparelli lander impacted.
Caption credit:  condensed from Emily Lakdawalla's Planetary Society blog.

An ESA press release stated: "Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometres, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h. ... It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full.  These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis."

The "fuzzy dark patch" where it impacted the surface is about 1 kilometer away from the parachute. The impact area is 5.4 kilometers west of its intended landing point and within the planned landing ellipse.

Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society calculated that Schiaparelli impacted 54 kilometers away from NASA's Opportunity rover's current location on the edge of Endeavour crater.

Schiaparelli is part of ESA's ExoMars program, a cooperative program with Russia.   There are four spacecraft in the program:  the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander, launched together earlier this year, and a Russian lander and European rover that will be launched in 2020 (delayed from 2018).

Schiaparelli's purpose was to test entry, descent, and landing (EDL) technologies in preparation for the 2020 mission.  At a press conference yesterday, ESA Director General Jan Woerner said he was happy with the mission even if Schiaparelli did not make a survivable landing since its purpose was to test these technologies.   It did enter the Mars atmosphere correctly, descend, jettison its heat shield and deploy its parachute. Something happened right at the time the parachute should have jettisoned.  What happened remains a mystery, but ExoMars Project Manger Don McCoy expressed confidence yesterday that after fully analyzing data transmitted from Schiaparelli to TGO during the descent "we will have no doubt" about what transpired. The imagery from MRO will certainly help in the quest for answers.

Woerner is also enthusiastic about the mission because TGO is in its proper orbit, able to serve as a communications link with the 2020 lander/rover as well as to conduct its scientific mission to study trace gases, especially methane, in the Martian atmosphere that could provide information on whether life ever existed there.   He is optimistic that the ministers of ESA's member states will similarly see the mission as a success since more money is needed to complete the 2020 portion of the mission, on the order of 300 million Euros.

The United States is the only country to unequivocally make successful landings on Mars.   The Soviet Union sent four landers to Mars in the 1970s (Mars 2, Mars 3, Mars 6 and Mars 7).  Only Mars 3 transmitted a signal back to Earth after landing and it lasted less than 20 seconds.  Britain's Beagle 2 traveled to Mars along with ESA's Mars Express orbiter in 2003.  Contact was lost before it entered the Martian atmosphere.  MRO also located that spacecraft on the surface just last year.  It was only partially deployed and unable to communicate back to Earth.

NASA has sent eight landers to Mars, seven successfully:  Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, and Curiosity.  One, Mars Polar Lander, failed, probably because of a similar problem as Schiaparelli -- early termination of the retrorockets.


ESA's Woerner: "I'm Happy" with ExoMars Even Though Fate of Lander Still Unknown

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Oct-2016 (Updated: 20-Oct-2016 06:39 AM)

European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner painted a highly positive picture of ESA's ExoMars 2016 mission this morning even though the agency still does not know the fate of one of the two spacecraft -- the Schiaparelli lander.  Stressing that Schiaparelli was a test, Woerner focused on the successful insertion into orbit of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) that not only will study the Martian atmosphere, but serve as a communications relay for a planned rover ESA will launch in 2020. 

ExoMars is a cooperative program between ESA and Russia's Roscosmos.  NASA originally planned to partner with ESA, but the Obama Administration declined to fund NASA's portion, so ESA turned to Russia instead.  A total of four spacecraft -- two launched in 2016 and two in 2020 (delayed from 2018) -- comprise the program.

TGO and Schiaparelli are ExoMars 2016.  They were launched in March 2016 and traveled together to Mars. They separated on October 16, three days before Mars arrival, for the final legs of their journeys. They reached Mars yesterday.  TGO went into orbit as planned, but contact with Schiaparelli was lost before it reached the surface.

Artist's illustration of the separation of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter from the Schiaparelli lander.  Image credit: ESA

TGO has two functions: to study traces gases, especially methane, in the Martian atmosphere, that could provide clues as to whether life ever existed there, and to serve as a communications relay for a Russian lander and European rover that will be launched in 2020.  The lander and rover are ExoMars 2020.

Woerner and other ESA officials speaking at a press conference at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstat, Germany this morning stressed that TGO is the "cornerstone" of both ExoMars 2016 and ExoMars 2020 and it is fine.  Schiaparelli was a test of entry, descent and landing technologies that will be needed for ExoMars 2020 and although its ultimate fate is not yet determined, it did successfully enter the Martian atmosphere and proceed through initial phases of descent, providing important data.

From Woerner's point of view, the overall mission is TGO plus the landing test and he is satisfied:  "I'm happy.... It's a big success."   

Andrea Accomazzo, head of ESA's Solar and Planetary Missions Division, explained that they are still analyzing the large amount of engineering data Schiaparelli transmitted to TGO during its descent.  What they know now is that Schiaparelli, also referred to as EDM -- entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module -- entered the Martian atmosphere, the heatshield worked "perfectly," and the parachutes deployed successfully following a pre-programmed set of commands. 

However, just before the parachutes were to be ejected, about 50 seconds before it would have reached the surface, the spacecraft "did not behave exactly as expected," he said.  At least some of Schiaparelli's retrorockets fired, but for only 3-4 seconds and the lander's ground radar was activated.  What happened next is undetermined, although he is confident that eventually "we will have no doubt" about what occurred.

Schiaparelli is somewhere on the surface of Mars now, whether or not it is operating.   ExoMars Program Manager Don McCoy said that its batteries should last between four and 10-12 Martian days (sols).  Although TGO could receive data from Schiaparelli during its descent, now that it is in orbit, it is not in a position to hear the lander.  Instead, an older ESA orbiter, Mars Express, and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will listen for signals that Schiaparelli is programmed to transmit at specific times.

As noted, ExoMars 2016 is only the first part of the ExoMars program.  The second part is the Russian lander/European rover still under development.  Woerner said that a review of the 2020 mission is scheduled for next week and acknowledged that ESA already was planning to ask its member states for more money to finish it, on the order of 300 million Euros.  He is optimistic that they will view ExoMars 2016 as a success just as he does and provide the necessary resources to complete the program.

Tense Times for ESA ExoMars and NASA Juno Teams

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2016 (Updated: 19-Oct-2016 10:59 PM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) was hoping to announce its first successful landing on Mars today, but the fate of its Schiaparelli lander is unknown at this time.  Meanwhile NASA's Juno spacecraft, which arrived at Jupiter in July, has an engine problem and, separately, went into safe mode last night. Both teams remain optimistic, but it will a tense wait until they have answers to the fate of these two spacecraft.

On the good news front, Schiaparelli is part of ESA's ExoMars 2016 program and traveled to Mars with the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO).  TGO successfully went into orbit around Mars today.

Schiaparelli is a small demonstration spacecraft to test entry, descent and landing technologies for a Russian lander and ESA rover currently planned for launch in 2020 (delayed from 2018). ESA sometimes refers to Schiaparelli as EDM -- entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module.

Artist's illustration of Schiaparelli landing on Mars.  Image credit:  ESA

Schiaparelli and TGO separated from each other three days ago to finish their journeys on their own with Schiaparelli headed for the surface and TGO to orbit. 

TGO joins five other spacecraft currently operating in Mars orbit today:  ESA's Mars Express, India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), and three from NASA -- Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Odyssey, and MAVEN.  NASA also has two rovers operating on the surface of Mars -- Opportunity and Curiosity.  NASA is the only space agency to land spacecraft on Mars that can be counted as unequivocal successes (Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, and Curiosity).  The Soviet Union sent four landers (Mars 2, Mars 3, Mars 6 and Mars 7), but only Mars 3 sent back a signal after landing and it lasted for less than 20 seconds.  Britain's Beagle 2 lander was sent to Mars along with Mars Express in 2003, but it was never heard from after separation.  It was recently located on the surface in imagery from MRO showing that it landed in a partially deployed configuration that prevented communication.

During its descent, Schiaparelli was sending data to Mars Express and emitting a beacon that allowed its progress to be tracked by a telescope on Earth, India's Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope.  ESA knows it successfully entered the Martian atmosphere and deployed its parachutes.  Next, the "backshell" heat shield was to release, followed by retrorocket braking, and a final fall from a height of 2 meters (6 feet) protected by a crushable structure.  At some point in that sequence, the signal was lost.

If it reached the surface and is still functioning, its batteries will allow it to transmit signals for 3-7 days.  Mars Express, MRO and MAVEN will be listening.

ESA will hold a pre-scheduled news conference tomorrow, October 20, to discuss Schiaparelli and TGO from 4:00-5:00 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), which is 10:00-11:00 am local time at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. 

The mixed news from ESA -- good for TGO, uncertain for Schiaparelli -- was quickly followed by worrisome news about a completely different deep space probe, NASA's Juno.  NASA launched Juno in 2011 and the solar powered spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. 

Artist's illustration of NASA's Juno spacecraft and its science instruments.  Image credit: NASA/JPL.

The initial orbit is highly elliptical, with a period of 53.5 days. The plan was to circularize it into a 14-day orbit as close as 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) above Jupiter's cloud tops for science observations.

An engine burn to change the orbit was planned for today (October 19), but an anomaly was detected in a pair of helium check valves in the engine.  Juno project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Rick Nybakken, said the valves should have opened in a few seconds, but took several minutes instead for unexplained reasons.  After consulting with spacecraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin, NASA decided to postpone the engine firing until the next opportunity on December 19.

The spacecraft already was on a path to come close to Jupiter's cloud-tops, although most of the science instruments were to be off during that pass.  Instead, the decision was made to turn all of them on to gather whatever data was possible.

However, Juno Principal Investigator Scott Bolton said a media briefing today that as Juno neared that close approach (perijove) last night, the spacecraft went into safe mode.

Spacecraft are designed to go into safe mode when an anomaly occurs and the goal is to protect the spacecraft systems and instruments while awaiting instructions from Earth.  In safe mode, all non-essential systems, including science instruments, are turned off.  Therefore no science data was acquired.

It is not all that uncommon for spacecraft to go into safe mode.  Often the problem is diagnosed by ground controllers who then upload new instructions and the mission continues.  One cannot be assured of that outcome, however.

As it is, Juno remains in orbit.  Assuming whatever caused safe mode to engage can be resolved, Bolton said today that scientists can obtain the science data they need even if the engine burn cannot be made and the orbital period is not reduced to 14 days.  It simply will take longer.

The twin anomalies underscore the increasingly trite, but nevertheless true, expression that "space is hard."

Soyuz MS-02 On Its Way to ISS - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2016 (Updated: 21-Oct-2016 08:09 AM)

UPDATE, October 21, 2016:  Docking was successful at 5:52 am ET this morning.

ORIGINAL STORY, October 19, 2016: Three new crew members for the International Space Station (ISS) lifted off on time at 4:05 am ET this morning from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  They are expected to arrive at ISS on Friday morning on their Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft.  The launch comes just hours after two Chinese astronauts entered their own space station, Tiangong-2.

Today's launch was postponed from September 23 because of a "squeezed cable" inside the spacecraft.  Soyuz MS-02 is the second of a new version of the Soyuz spacecraft and some of the kinks are still being worked out.  The first Soyuz was launched in 1967 and the spacecraft has undergone a number of upgrades over the decades.  This MS version replaces the TMA-M variant.  The first MS launch, Soyuz MS-01, also was delayed this summer because of last minute technical issues.

Soyuz MS-02 on launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakshtan, minutes before launch on October 19, 2016 ET.  Screenshot from NASA TV.

The three crew members aboard Soyuz MS-02 are NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Rhzhikov and Andrew Borisensko.  They are taking the 2-day trajectory to ISS, rather that the shorter 6-hour route, to checkout the new spacecraft systems.  Docking is expected at 5:59 am ET on Friday.

They will be the second crew to dock at a space station this week.

Two Chinese astronauts docked with and entered their own space station, Tiangong-2, yesterday (Eastern Daylight Time-EDT). Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong were launched on Shenzhou-11 on Sunday (EDT).  They will spend 30 days aboard their 8.6 metric ton (MT) space station, China's second (Tiangong 1 was launched in 2011 and was visited by two three-person crews in 2012 and 2013 respectively).  That will double the duration of the longest Chinese human spaceflight to date, the 15-day Shenzhou-10 flight in 2013.  Tiangong-1 and -2 are precursors to a 60 MT multi-modular space station China plans to have in place by 2022.

The Soyuz MS-02 crew will remain aboard the 400 MT ISS until February 2017.   ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russian, Japan, Canada and 11 European nations working through the European Space Agency (ESA).  It has been permanently occupied since December 2000 with crews rotating on 4-6 month schedules. 

The Soyuz MS-02 crew will be joining three crew members already aboard -- NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin.  They are getting ready to come home in less than two weeks, having been aboard the facility since July.  Their replacements will be launched four weeks from now.  On November 15, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky will head to ISS continuing the routine do-si-do of crew arrivals and departures.

In the meantime, Orbital ATK's Cygnus OA-5 cargo spacecraft is in orbit waiting for Soyuz MS-02 to dock.  Its launch was delayed a day, from Sunday to Monday, so it missed its original arrival date this morning.  NASA decided to have it loiter in space while Soyuz MS-02 arrives and the crew has a day to acclimate itself.  Cygnus is berthed to ISS, rather than docking.   It will be grappled using the robotic Canadarm2 at about 7:05 am ET on Sunday, with berthing to an ISS port about two hours later.

NASA TV will cover the Soyuz MS-02 docking on Friday beginning at 5:15 am ET and the Cygnus berthing operation on Sunday beginning at 6:00 am ET.

China Launches Two Crew Members to Tiangong-2 Space Station - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Oct-2016 (Updated: 18-Oct-2016 11:19 PM)

UPDATE, October 18, 2016, 3:40 pm EDT:   The two astronauts just successfully docked with Tiangong-2.

ORIGINAL STORY, October 16, 2016, EDT: Two Chinese astronauts were successfully launched to China's Tiangong-2 space station tonight.  They are expected to dock in two days.

The Long March 2F rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert on time at 7:30 pm Eastern Daylight Time (7:30 am Monday, October 17, local time at the launch site) sending the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft into orbit.

Liftoff of Shenzhou-11 on a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, October 16, 2016 EDT.  Photo credit:  CCTV

Aboard are astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong.  Jing, 50, is on his third spaceflight and is commander of the mission; Chen, 38, is on his first spaceflight.  The two men will remain aboard Tiangong-2 for 30 days after docking.

Jing Haipeng, Shenzhou-11 commander.  Photo credit: Xinhua

Shenzhou-11 astronaut Chen Dong. Photo credit: Xinhua

The two men will conduct a variety of experments during their 30 days on Tiangong 2, including taking ultrasound measurements for the first time in space, cultivating plants, and testing the three winners of an experimental design competition in Hong Kong for secondary students, according to Xinhua.

China provided little information about the mission until yesterday.

Although Chinese sources initially indicated this is the first of two two-man crews that will occupy Tiangong-2, more recent indications are that it will be the only one.  The next launch to the small 8.6 metric ton space station is scheduled for April 2017.  It is China's first cargo resupply spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, which will be launched on a Long March 7 from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.  It reportedly will conduct a refueling test.


What's Happening in Space Policy October 16-22, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Oct-2016 (Updated: 16-Oct-2016 06:36 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of October 16-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until November 14. 

During the Week

At 7:30 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) tonight, China will launch a two-man crew aboard the Shenzhou-11 (SZ-11) spacecraft from the Jiuquan launch site in the Gobi desert (where it will be 7:30 am Monday),  They are headed to the new Tiangong-2 space station with docking expected in two days.  They will remain aboard for 30 days, doubling the duration of China's longest human spaceflight mission to date. Tiangong-2 is small, 8.6 metric tons (MT), compared to the 400 MT International Space Station (ISS), but it is a precursor to a larger 60 MT space station the Chinese plan to have in place in the early 2020s.

ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and Europe.  It has been permanently occupied by multinational crews rotating on 4-6 month shifts since the year 2000 and is regularly resupplied via cargo missions launched by two U.S. companies (Orbital ATK and SpaceX) and the Japanese and Russian space agencies.  The next cargo mission, Orbital ATK's OA-5,  was scheduled for launch tonight from Wallops Island, VA at 8:03 pm EDT.  At press time, however, Orbital ATK announced that the launch of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft is being postponed for 24 hours because of a bad ground support cable.  The new launch time is Monday at 7:40 pm EDT.   Cygnus OA-5 will deliver supplies, equipment and scientific experiments to the three crew members currently aboard (one each from NASA, JAXA and Roscosmos).  Cygnus is being launched with a new version of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket.  This is the first flight of Antares since an October 28, 2014 failure.  If launched tonight, Cygnus was to arrive at ISS Wednesday morning, but with a Monday launch, arrival at ISS will be delayed a few days.  Three new ISS crew members are being launched to ISS on the Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft early Wednesday morning EDT.  They are taking the 2-day route to ISS arriving on Friday.  NASA and Orbital ATK said at a press conference yesterday that if the OA-5 launch was delayed to Monday, as now has happened, they would have the Cygnus spacecraft loiter in orbit for a few days to allow the Soyuz MS-02 crew to dock first.  The Cygnus arrival is now scheduled for Sunday, October 23.  The Soyuz MS-02 crew (one American, two Russians) will restore the ISS to its usual crew complement of six.

The European Space Agency (ESA)-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mission already had an important event today. The spacecraft is carrying a small lander, Schiaparelli, and they made the trip to Mars together.  They are three days away from Mars now and it was time for them to separate.  Separation occurred at approximately 10:30 am EDT, but was followed by a nail-biting period of time when ESA was not receiving telemetry from TGO.  That problem appears to be resolved now and the mission is proceeding as scheduled.  On Wednesday, Schiaparelli will land on Mars and TGO will enter orbit.  ESA will provide live coverage of those events and hold a press conference on Thursday.

To recap only these events (all EDT):

Today (Sunday)

  • ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter/Schiaparelli lander separation
  • Chinese launch of Shenzhou-11 with two crew members to Tiangong-2 space station at 7:30 pm EDT (usually broadcast on China's CCTV, available in English on the Internet)


  • New launch date for U.S. Orbital ATK launch of Cygnus OA-5 cargo mission to ISS, 7:40 pm EDT (broadcast on NASA TV)


  • Chinese crew arrives at Tiangong-2 (time not announced)


  • Russian Soyuz MS-02 launch to ISS from Kazakhstan with three crew members (one American, two Russian) at 4:05 am EDT (watch on NASA TV)
  • ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter enters Martian orbit and Schiaparelli lands (watch on ESA's website, 9:00 am - 4:00 pm EDT)


  • ESA press conference about ExoMars (watch on ESA's website, 4:00-5:00 am EDT)


  • Soyuz MS-02 docks at ISS (time not announced)


  • Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-5 arrival at ISS (if launch is on October 17), grapple at approximately 7:00 am EDT

Many other events are on tap this week in addition to those launches and arrivals.  Among them is the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division on Planetary Sciences (DPS) in Pasadena, CA.  This year it is combined with a meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress.  Exciting discoveries and other results from planetary exploration missions are the staple of this conference.  It starts today and runs through Friday.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis (CSBA) is having an interesting discussion on Tuesday morning at the Newseum in Washington, DC.  CSBA challenged teams from four prominent Washington think tanks to develop alternative strategies and rebalance DOD's major capabilities in light of today's security challenges.  They could choose from over 1200 pre-costed options provided by CSBA to add to or cut from the projected defense program for the next 10 years.  They will present their conclusions at the meeting.  It will be interesting to see if they recommend any changes to the national security space portfolio.  The event will be webcast.

On Friday, the State Department and the Secure World Foundation will hold a day-long seminar at the State Department on International Best Practices for Space Sustainability. It features four panels of top experts from around the world (your editor is lucky enough to moderate the industry panel).  Hopefully you followed the instructions and registered by last Friday as required for this event (for security checks etc.).

And last but not least of our highlighted events for the week, the final 2016 presidential debates is Wednesday night from 9:00-10:30 pm EDT.  It will be nationally televised (check local listings).   The election is on November 8.

All of those events and others we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list or for schedule changes.

Sunday, October 16

Sunday-Friday, October 16-21

Monday, October 17

Tuesday, October 18

Wednesday, October 19

Thursday, October 20

Friday, October 21

China Set to Launch Two-Man Crew to New Tiangong-2 Space Station

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Oct-2016 (Updated: 16-Oct-2016 06:03 AM)

Just one day before launch, China finally officially announced the names of the two crew members and launch time for the first mission to its new Tiangong-2 space station.  The Shenzhou-11 spacecraft with Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong will launch at 7:30 pm Eastern Daylight Time tonight (Sunday), which is 7:30 am Monday (October 17) local time at the Jiuquan launch site in the Gobi desert.

Andrew Jones, a reporter in Finland who writes for, had calculated the launch time several days ago based on observations of the space station's orbital position and a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) issued by China, but China's official announcement through its Xinhua news service was not made until late last night EDT.   In fact, China's CCTV television network released a story yesterday with an incorrect launch day and time.

In any case, Xinhua states that the launch aboard a Long March-2F rocket is at 7:30 pm EDT tonight.  Jing and Chen are headed to China's Tiangong-2 space station, which was launched last month, where they will remain for 30 days. The longest Chinese human spaceflight mission to date is 15 days.

By coincidence, the Shenzhou-11 launch is just 33 minutes before NASA and Orbital ATK will launch a cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The two space stations are in completely different orbits.

Tiangong-2 is a small, 8.6 metric ton (MT) space station.  It is similar to China's first space station, Tiangong-1, which was launched in 2011 and occupied by two three-person crews in 2012 and 2013.  (For a list of all Chinese human spaceflight launches, see this fact sheet.)  These two small stations are precursors to a multi-modular 60 MT space station China plans to have in place by the early 2020s.  

By comparison, ISS has a mass of approximately 400 MT.  It is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries acting through the European Space Agency.  ISS has been permanently occupied by multinational crews rotating on 4-6 month schedules since the year 2000.  NASA is prohibited by law from bilateral cooperation with China unless it makes specific certifications to Congress in advance.

Jing, 50, is the Shenzhou-11 mission commander.  This is his third spaceflight.   Chen, 38, is on his first mission.  They will dock with the space station two days after launch.  In addition to conducting scientific experiments and other tasks, they will serve as "special correspondents" sharing "their work and life in space via text, audio and video through Xinhua's media services."

The experiments include taking ultrasound measurements for the first time in space, cultivating plants, and testing the three winners of an experimental design competition in Hong Kong for secondary students, according to Xinhua.

China plans to launch its first cargo mission to Tiangong-2 in April 2017.  The Tianzhou-1 spacecraft will conduct a refueling test.  Until now, all Chinese human spaceflight-related missions have been launched from Jiuquan, but Tianzhou-1 will launch on a new Long March 7 rocket from the new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.

Chinese sources have variously stated that Tianzhou-1 will be the last launch to Tiangong-2 or that a second two-man crew will be sent on Shenzhou-12.