Late October and early November reminded us all that it’s HARD to get into space. We currently get there using a just barely controlled explosion of enough energy to flatten a small city. It doesn’t take much of a mistake somewhere in literally millions of parts assembled over years by tens of thousands of people for it to be “a bad day.” That, of course, is test pilot jargon for blowing up, crashing, and dying.
Fortunately, on November 12th the Philae spacecraft became humankind’s first probe to land on a comet, bringing us about fifty-six hours of data before its batteries died. It may come back to life as the comet moves around the sun and the ice gulch at the bottom of a cliff that Philae apparently landed in gets exposed to sunlight, which could recharge the batteries and bring Philae back to life. Meanwhile, the Rosetta “mothership” continues to orbit the comet sending back more and more jaw-dropping pictures by the day, and will continue to do so for many months to come.
This week has been a particularly good week for reminding us all that, despite how HARD it is to get into space, we keep doing it anyway. Earlier in the week the Japanese launched the Hayabusa2 spacecraft, which is designed to rendezvous with an asteroid in June 2018, orbit it for a year and a half, release three small rovers, pick up samples, and then bring them back to Earth in December 2020.
That’s an extremely ambitious and exciting mission. I’m looking forward to following it and I wish JAXA nothing but success in setting their sights high.
More routinely, the ArianeSpace launched two large communications satellites on an Ariane 5 rocket out of French Guinea. That marks the 63rd consecutive successful launch for the Airane 5, dating back to 2003. There may never come a day in my lifetime when going to space is truly “routine,” but that kind of a record shows that we’re getting there.
And, of course, yesterday NASA launched its new Orion spacecraft for the first time on a two-orbit mission that was successful beyond their wildest dreams. It will take time to go over the data in detail, but at first glance it was an almost eerily perfect flight, especially for a first ever test flight. That just doesn’t happen.
Finally, the icing on the cake came this afternoon. At noon Pacific Time today, 2,900,000,000 miles away, the New Horizons spacecraft woke up out of hibernation. It’s been travelling toward Pluto since January 2006 and is now only 162,000,000 miles from its closest approach to Pluto on July 14th. It will start its science program well before that, on January 15th. As with earlier fly-by missions in the 1970s to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, we’ll know more about Pluto in the next six months than we’ve known in the entire time since its discovery in 1930.
Congratulations to one and all! JAXA, ESA, and NASA have all had a good week. In the next couple of weeks Roscosmos and SpaceX are up with Russian launches scheduled for December 12th and 18th, and the next Dragon launch to ISS set for December 16th. Let’s keep it going!
(Wait, what’s that on the manifest about a December 11th Atlas 5 launch out of Vandenberg? That’s not that far to drive – when will we have a solid launch time? What have I got going on for Thursday?)