Crew Dragon capsule has safely splashed down in the Atlantic, making it the first privately built crew-capable spacecraft ever to complete a mission to the International Space Station. It’s one of several firsts SpaceX plans this year, but Boeing is hot on its heels with a crew demonstrator of its own — and of course the real test is doing the same thing with astronauts aboard. This mission, Demo-1, had SpaceX showing that its Crew Dragon capsule, an evolution of the cargo-bearing Dragon that has made numerous deliveries, was complete and ready to take on its eponymous crew. It took off early in the morning of March 2 (still March 1 on the West coast), circled the Earth 18 times, and eventually came to a stop (relatively speaking, of course) adjacent to the ISS, after which it approached and docked with the new International Docking Adapter. The 400 pounds of supplies were emptied, but the “anthropomorphic test device” known as Ripley — basically a space crash test dummy — stayed in her seat on board. (It’s also worth noting that the Falcon 9 first stage that took the capsule to the edge of the atmosphere landed autonomously on a drone ship.) Five days later — very early this morning — the craft disengaged from the ISS and began the process of deorbiting. It landed on schedule at about 8:45 in the morning Eastern time. It’s a huge validation of Commercial Crew Program, and of course a triumph for SpaceX, which not only made and launched a functioning crew spacecraft, but did so before its rival Boeing. That said, it isn’t winner take all — the two spacecraft could very well exist in healthy competition as crewed missions to space become more and more common. Expect to see a report on the mission soon after SpaceX and NASA have had time to debrief and examine the craft (and Ripley).
For the first time later this week, a privately developed moon lander will launch aboard a privately built rocket, organized by a private launch coordinator. It’s an historic moment in space and the Israeli mission stands to make history again if it touches down on the Moon’s surface as planned on April 11. The Beresheet (“Genesis”) program was originally conceived as an entry into the ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Google Lunar Xprize in 2010, which challenged people to accomplish a lunar landing, with $30 million in prizes as the incentive. The prize closed last year with no winner but as these Xprize competitions aim to do, it had already spurred great interest and investment in a private moon mission. and Israel Aerospace Industries worked together on the mission, which will bring cameras, a magnetometer, and a capsule filled with items from the country to, hopefully, a safe rest on the lunar surface. The Beresheet lander ahead of packaging for launch. The launch plan as of now (these things do change with weather, technical delays, and so on) is for takeoff at 5:45 Pacific time on Thursday — 8:45 PM in Cape Canaveral — aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. A live stream should be available shortly before, which I’ll add here later or in a new post. 30 minutes after takeoff the payload will detach and make contact with mission control, then begin the process of closing the distance to the Moon, during which time it will circle the Earth six times. Russia, China, and of course the U.S. are the only ones ever to successfully land on the Moon; was the first to soft-land (as opposed to impact) the “dark” (though really only far — it’s often light) side and is currently functional. But although there has been one successful private lunar flyby mission (the Manfred Memorial probe) no one but a major country has ever touched down. If Beresheet is a success it would be both the first Israeli moon mission and the first private mission to do so. It would also be the first lunar landing to be accomplished with a privately built rocket, and the lightest spacecraft on the Moon, and at around $100M in costs, the cheapest as well. Landing on the Moon is, of course, terribly difficult. Just as geosynchronous orbit is far more difficult than low Earth orbit, a lunar insertion orbit is even harder, a stable such orbit even harder, and accomplishing a controlled landing on target even harder than that. The only thing more difficult would be to take off again and return to Earth, as Apollo 11 did in 1969 and other missions several times after. Kind of amazing when you think about it. Seattle’s Spaceflight coordinated the launch, and technically Beresheet is the secondary payload; the primary is the Air Force Research Labs’ S5 experimental satellite, which the launch vehicle will take to geosynchronous orbit after the lunar module detaches. Although Beresheet may very well be the first, it will likely be the first of many: other contenders in the Lunar Xprize, as well as companies funded or partnering with NASA and other space agencies, will soon be making their own attempts at making tracks in the regolith.
Opportunity, one of two rovers sent to Mars in 2004, is officially offline for good, and JPL officials announced today at a special press conference. “I declare the Opportunity mission as complete, and with it the Mars Exploration Rover mission as complete,” said NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen. The cause of Opportunity’s demise was a planet-scale sandstorm that obscured its solar panels too completely, and for too long, for its onboard power supply to survive and keep even its most elementary components running. It last communicated on June 10, 2018, but could easily have lasted a few months more as its batteries ran down — a sad picture to be sure. Even a rover designed for the harsh Martian climate can’t handle being trapped under a cake of dust at -100 degrees celsius for long. The team has been trying to reach it for months, employing a variety of increasingly desperate techniques to get the rover to at least respond; even if its memory had been wiped clean or instruments knocked out, it could be reprogrammed and refreshed to continue service if only they could set up a bit of radio rapport. But every attempt, from ordinary contact methods to “sweep and beep” ploys, was met with silence. The final transmission from mission control was last night. Spent the evening at JPL as the last ever commands were sent to the Opportunity rover on . There was silence. There were tears. There were hugs. There were memories and laughs shared. — Dr. Tanya Harrison (@tanyaofmars) Spirit and Opportunity, known together as the Mars Exploration Rovers mission, were launched individually in the summer of 2003 and touched down in January of 2004 — 15 years ago! — in different regions of the planet. Each was equipped with a panoramic camera, a macro camera, spectrometers for identifying rocks and minerals, and a little drill for taking samples. The goal was to operate for 90 days, traveling about 40 meters each day and ultimately covering about a kilometer. Both exceeded those goals by incredible amounts. Spirit ended up traveling about 7.7 kilometers and lasting about 7 years. But Opportunity outshone its twin, going some 45 kilometers over 14 years — . And of course both rovers contributed immensely to our knowledge of the Red Planet. It was experiments by these guys that really established a past when Mars not only had water, but bio-friendly liquid water that might have supported life. Opportunity did a lot of science but always had time for a selfie, such as this one at the edge of Erebus Crater. It’s always sad when a hard-working craft or robot finally shuts down for good, especially when it’s one that’s been as successful as “Oppy.” The Cassini probe , and Kepler has . But ultimately these platforms are instruments of science and we should celebrate their extraordinary success as well as mourn their inevitable final days. “Spirit and Opportunity may be gone, but they leave us a legacy — a new paradigm for solar system exploration,” said JPL head Michael Watkins. “That legacy continues not just in the Curiosity rover, which is currently operating healthily after about 2,300 days on the surface of Mars. But also in our new 2020 rover, which is under construction here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.” “But Spirit and Opportunity did something more than that,” he continued. “They energized the public about the spirit of robotic Mars exploration. The infectious energy and electricity that this mission created was obvious to the public.” Mars of course is not suddenly without a tenant. The Insight lander and has been meticulously and testing its systems. And the is well on its way to launch. It’s a popular planet. Perhaps some day we’ll scoop up these faithful servants and put them in a Martian museum. For now let’s look forward to the next mission.
Chris Bosh and his wife, Adrienne Bosh, pose for a selfie with an Atlas 5 rocket in advance of today’s Mars InSight launch. (Adrienne Bosh via Twitter) While retired NBA All-Star basketball player Chris Bosh , he and his wife Adrienne are taking a time out to witness the from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Based on their tweets, the Boshs are having a great time and firing up the space crowd as well. More importantly, they’re inspiring their children to reach even higher than a basketball rim: I’m behind the scenes of the launch