Pioneer Venus

Thirty-five years ago today — May 20, 1978 — Pioneer Venus launched from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas Centaur rocket.

(Artist’s conception of the Pioneer Venus Orbiter. NASA image.)

The Pioneer Venus Orbiter was designed to study Venusian from orbit, and was followed about three months later by a second spacecraft, the “Multiprobe,” which carried small probes to be dropped into the Venusian atmosphere.

The Orbiter arrived at Venus on December 4, 1978, and continued operating until its fuel ran out, it dropped out of orbit, and burned up in October 1992. During its operational life, the Orbiter observed Comet Halley when it was not visible from Earth, became the first spacecraft to map the surface of Venus, and

measured the detailed structure of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere of Venus, investigated the interaction of the solar wind with the ionosphere and the magnetic field in the vicinity of Venus, determined the characteristics of the atmosphere and surface of Venus on a planetary scale, determined the planet’s gravitational field harmonics from perturbations of the spacecraft orbit, and detected gamma-ray bursts.

You can read more on this Pioneer Venus page and also on this overview page.

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The Loss of Nimbus-B … and Recovery of Its Radioactive Power Source

Forty-five years ago today — May 18, 1968 — a Thor-Agena rocket launched from Vandenberg AFB, carrying the Nimbus-B satellite. Unfortunately, a problem with the launch vehicle’s guidance system caused the rocket to veer off-course, and it had to be destroyed by Range Safety.

(The Nimbus B RTG fuel containers on the seafloor. NASA image.)

Nimbus-B was a research-and-development weather satellite, with a number of instruments and experimental packages:

(1) a satellite infrared spectrometer (SIRS) for determining the [vertical] temperature profiles of the atmosphere,
(2) an infrared interferometer spectrometer (IRIS) for measuring the emission spectra of the earth-atmosphere system,
(3) both high- and medium-resolution infrared radiometers (HRIR and MRIR) for yielding information on the distribution and intensity of infrared radiation emitted and reflected by the earth and its atmosphere,
(4) a monitor of ultraviolet solar energy (MUSE) for detecting solar UV radiation,
(5) an image dissector camera system (IDCS) for providing daytime cloudcover pictures in both real-time mode, using the real-time transmission system (RTTS), and tape recorder mode, using the high data rate storage system (DHRSS),
(6) a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), SNAP-19, to assess the operational capability of radioisotope power for space applications, and
(7) an interrogation, recording, and location system (IRLS) designed to locate, interrogate, record, and retransmit meteorological data from remote collection stations.

When the spacecraft ended up the ocean, that item number 6 became a prime concern. But according to this page on radioisotope power systems, everything functioned as designed and the SNAP-19 generator’s plutonium fuel remained intact and protected. In fact, the plutonium was recovered from the ocean floor and eventually used to power the Nimbus-III satellite.

Finally, on a personal note, this reminds me of the loss of another rocket, 20 years ago this fall, for which I ran the maritime search-and-salvage operation. But that will be the subject of another post when its anniversary date rolls around.

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Last Mercury Mission: the Flight of ‘Faith 7’

Fifty years ago today — May 15, 1963 — L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., launched from Cape Canaveral on the final manned mission of the Mercury program.

(Mercury/Atlas-9. NASA image.)

Riding the “Faith 7” capsule for mission Mercury/Atlas-9, Cooper became the first US astronaut to spend more than 24 hours in space. This mission was also the first US spaceflight to include a live TV broadcast.

Because of a suspected malfunction in the automatic reentry system, Cooper also became the first astronaut to use only the manual reentry mode. He initiated reentry after 22 orbits, and splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean near Midway Island after spending about 34 hours in orbit.

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Forty years ago today — May 14, 1973 — the last operational Saturn V rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center and carried the Skylab space station to orbit.

(Skylab. NASA image.)

Skylab was “composed of five parts, the Apollo telescope mount (ATM), the multiple docking adapter (MDA), the airlock module (AM), the instrument unit (IU), and the orbital workshop (OWS).”

The “telescope mount” — positioned at a right angle to the main body, as seen in the image — pointed at the sun, and provided some spectacular images of solar activity in addition to being the primary reference point for the station’s attitude control subsystem. Technology being what it was at the time, astronauts had to retrieve film from the ATM’s cameras by taking spacewalks to it.

The “workshop”

was a modified Saturn 4B stage suitable for long duration manned habitation in orbit. It contained provisions and crew quarters necessary to support three-person crews for periods of up to 84 days each.

The first crew to inhabit the station launched eleven days after the station itself went into orbit.

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First Asteroid Mission, Triumphant Despite Many Troubles

Ten years ago today — May 9, 2003 — Japan launched a daring asteroid sample-return mission from the Uchinoura Space Center, atop an M-5 rocket.

(Hayabusa. Image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

Originally called Muses-C, Hayabusa (“Falcon”) was a difficult mission to begin with, but experienced a series of setbacks that made its ultimate success all the more impressive.

  • In late 2003, a large solar flare degraded the spacecraft’s solar panels, reducing the power available to its ion engines. The original rendezvous date in early summer 2005 was pushed back to September.
  • On July 31, 2004, Hayabusa’s X-axis reaction wheel failed.
  • The spacecraft successfully rendezvoused with 25143 Itokawa (1998 SF36) — an asteroid  about as big as three football stadiums at 550 x 180 meters (1800 x 590 feet) — on September 12, 2005. Hayabusa established itself in a heliocentric orbit for station-keeping about 20 km (12.4 mi) from the asteroid.
  • On October 3, 2005 Hayabusa’s Y-axis reaction wheel failed, leaving its attitude control subsystem operating only on “one reaction wheel and two chemical thrusters.”
  • Hayabusa mapped the asteroid’s surface in two phases, then began descent operations. During the second touchdown rehearsal on November 12th, the spacecraft released a “lander/hopper” called Minerva; unfortunately, “the release was at a higher altitude than planned…. and it is believed Minerva moved off into space without landing.”
  • A week later, on November 19, Hayabusa again descended toward the asteroid, and released a “target marker” before contact was lost as it fell to the surface.

Later telemetry indicated that Hayabusa hit the surface at 20:40 UT 19 November (5:40 a.m. JST 20 November) at roughly 10 cm/sec and bounced. It bounced again at 21:10 and then landed at 21:30 within about 30 meters of the target marker. At 21:58 (6:58 a.m. JST 20 November) it was commanded to make an emergency ascent. The craft remained on the surface for about half an hour but did not collect a sample. This was the first ever controlled landing on an asteroid and first ascent from any other solar system body except the Moon.

  • On November 25, Hayabusa touched down again, and fired two “sampling bullets” at the surface. Telemetry could not verify that they actually fired; nevertheless, Hayabusa lifted off.
  • On December 9, ground controllers lost contact with the spacecraft, “presumably because of torques caused by a thruster leak which altered the pointing of the antenna.”
  • Controllers restored communication in March 2006, and learned over the next several months that the spacecraft’s status was somewhat grim: low on fuel, two out of three reaction wheels inoperative, plus 4 out of 11 batteries had also stopped working. The spacecraft’s degraded solar cells and batteries were still sufficient to maintain thrust and attitude control with its xenon ion engine, and in April 2007 it started its journey Earth-ward.

When Hayabusa was a little outside the Moon’s orbit, it released its sample return capsule, which de-orbited on June 13, 2010 and landed near Woomera, Australia.

Subsequent examination of the sample return capsule showed that there were roughly 1500 dust particles, presumably from asteroid Itokawa.

Well done, Hayabusa!

You can learn more about this remarkable mission at this Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) page.

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Exploring the Evolution of Galaxies

Ten years ago today — April 28, 2003 — a Pegasus XL rocket carried a small spacecraft to probe the origin of stars and galaxies.

(A 2012 GALEX composite image of the Andromeda galaxy. NASA/JPL-Caltech image.)

Called GALEX, for GALaxy Evolution eXplorer, the spacecraft’s primary instrument was a telescope tuned to the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. With its mission now extended beyond the original 29-month timeline, GALEX is conducting “an all-sky imaging survey, a deep imaging survey, and a survey of 200 galaxies nearest to the Milky Way” in order to explore the origins of heavy elements, stars, and galaxies. You can find more information about the mission, including many stunning images, on this page

For more down-to-earth mapping purposes, on this date 5 years ago India launched CartoSat 2A, a remote-sensing satellite, along with 9 smaller spacecraft, from the Sriharikota launch center on a PSLV 9 rocket. Urban and rural planners use CartoSat’s data.


P.S. The full resolution JPEG (19.3 MB) of the Andromeda image above is here.

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Shuttle, Soyuz, and Space-Based Navigation

Twenty years ago today — April 26, 1993 — the Space Shuttle Columbia launched from the Kennedy Space Center on an international Spacelab mission.

(Spacelab D-2 in the shuttle payload bay. Note the lightning flashes in the clouds below. NASA image.)

The STS-55 crew consisted of U.S. astronauts Steven R. Nagel, Terence T. Henricks, Jerry L. Ross, Charles J. Precourt, Bernard A. Harris Jr., and Ulrich Walter, plus German astronaut Hans W. Schlegel. The shuttle carried the second of the German-built reusable Spacelab modules, and the crew spent 9 days in space conducting a variety of experiments in the laboratory. One highlight of the mission was the first IV established in orbit, in which Dr. Harris “inject[ed] Schlegel with saline as part of study to replace body fluids lost during adaptation to weightlessness.”

Then, on this date 10 years ago, astronaut Edward T. Lu launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on mission Soyuz TMA-2, making him the first U.S. astronaut to serve as the Flight Engineer of a Soyuz spacecraft. The spacecraft commander was cosmonaut Yuri I. Malenchenko, and their destination was the International Space Station where they became the Expedition 7 crew.

Finally, 5 years ago today — April 26, 2008 — a Soyuz-Fregat rocket launched from Baikonur carrying GIOVE-B (Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element-B), the second of two test spacecraft for the European Union’s own fleet of navigational satellites.

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Soft X-Rays and a Data Relay

Twenty years ago today — April 25, 1993 — the first satellite completely sponsored by the Department of Energy launched on a Pegasus booster, dropped from the wing of NASA’s B-52.

(ALEXIS satellite artist’s conception. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The Array of Low Energy X-Ray Imaging Sensors (ALEXIS) satellite’s primary instrument was an X-ray telescope array tuned to “ultrasoft” X-rays for making a sky map in that part of the electromagnetic spectrum, as well as the “Blackbeard” VHF receiver “for studying the effect of lightning and electromagnetic impulse from exploding [nuclear] devices on the ionospheric transmission.”

During its flight, one of the satellite’s solar array paddles was damaged, and controllers could not establish contact with the spacecraft for 3 months. Once they established contact, they had to develop specific attitude control procedures to bring the satellite under control, after which the spacecraft performed well although “the astronomy data needed a full pointing and aspect solution in order to be interpreted.”

And, to complete the promise implied by the title of this post: 5 years ago today — April 25, 2008 — China launched its first data-relay satellite, Tianlian 1, on a Long March 3C rocket from Xichang Launch Center.

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Neurolab, the Last Spacelab Mission

Fifteen years ago today — April 17, 1998 — the Space Shuttle Columbia launched from the Kennedy Space Center on a unique scientific mission.

(The Spacelab module in the Shuttle cargo bay during mission STS-90. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The STS-90 crew — Richard A. Searfoss, Scott D. Altman, Richard M. Linnehan, Dafydd Rhys Williams, Kathryn P. Hire, Jay C. Buckey, and James A. Pawelczyk — spent just over 2 weeks in space, operating the “Neurolab” which

targeted one of the most complex and least understood parts of the human body — the nervous system. The primary goals were to conduct basic research in neurosciences and expand understanding of how the nervous system develops and functions in space. Test subjects were crew members and rats, mice, crickets, snails and two kinds of fish.

The crew conducted most of the experiments in the European Space Agency’s pressurized Spacelab module, which flew for the last time on this mission.

The mission might have ended a week early because of a problem with the Regenerative Carbon Dioxide Removal System, but ground-based engineers guided the crew through bypassing a “suspect valve” to enable them to stay on orbit.

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Atmospheric Science and Two Space Firsts

On this date, 15 years apart, two trailblazing (so to speak) female astronauts made historic space flights.

(Charlotte, North Carolina, photographed at night from STS-56. NASA image.)

Twenty years ago today — April 8, 1993 — the Space Shuttle Discovery launched from Kennedy Space Center carrying two science payloads. The STS-56 crew consisted of astronauts Kenneth D. Cameron, Stephen S. Oswald, C. Michael Foale, Kenneth D. Cockrell, and the first Hispanic woman to fly in space, Ellen Ochoa. The primary payload was the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science (ATLAS, in its second iteration, ATLAS-2), which was “designed to collect data on [the] relationship between [the] sun’s energy output and Earth’s middle atmosphere and how these factors affect ozone layer.” The crew also deployed and recovered the SPARTAN-201 free-flying science package, which examined the sun’s corona and the solar wind.

Also on this date, in 2008, Soyuz TMA-12 launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying cosmonauts Sergei A Volokov and Oleg D. Kononenko, plus South Korean Yi So-Yeon, to the International Space Station. Yi was South Korea’s first astronaut, having been selected from 36,000 applicants. Volokov and Kononenko stayed aboard the ISS when Yi and the former ISS crew returned to Earth on April 19th.

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