Daily Archives: April 15, 2015

A Couple More…

A last couple of space-related tidbits before I get my mind onto something else:

First, this week is the 45th anniversary of the infamous Apollo 13 moon mission, when a familiar tale of exploration and adventure took an abrupt turn and became one of the greatest survival stories in human history. If you’ve seen the excellent Apollo 13 movie starring Tom Hanks, you know basically what happened: when astronaut Jack Swigert flipped a switch to stir the slushy contents of the spacecraft’s main liquid oxygen tank — a completely routine operation that should’ve been about as exciting as turning on the lights — an electrical fault caused the tank to explode. The resulting damage was severe enough, the situation dire enough, that the three men aboard barely made it back to Earth with their lives. But what exactly led to that disastrous electrical fault? io9 has posted a fascinating rundown of the chain of events — essentially, it was one dumb little coincidence after another, piling on top of each other until some kind of failure became almost inevitable. Most chilling of all is the note that timing was everything; if the explosion had happened sooner in the flight or later, those three brave men wouldn’t have had a chance. Give it a read.

And finally, there’s this:

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That’s the first color photo of the dwarf planet Pluto and its satellite Charon (Pluto is the larger blob on the right) taken by the New Horizons space probe last week. New Horizons has been hurtling toward a rendezvous with these twin worlds at the edge of our solar system for nearly 10 years, and it’s still 71 million miles away from them. But it’s closing fast, and will fly past these icy little rocks (as well as Pluto’s other four moons) on July 14th, giving us our first really good look at what used to considered the ninth planet of our system before its controversial downgrade from planet status. Planet or not, I’ve wondered what Pluto really looks like since reading Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel in the fifth grade. I’m looking forward to this one…

National Geographic has the details on that photo, and the New Horizons mission, here.

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Getting Closer

Yesterday was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for space nerds, as Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched another mission to the International Space Station, the sixth of 12 flights the company is contracted to fulfill. Aboard the Dragon spacecraft this time was 4,300 pounds of supplies, experiments, and the first-ever orbital espresso machine, which of course has been dubbed the “ISSpresso.” I have no idea how such a thing is going to work in zero-gravity — it would be very bad to have a cloud of hot steam drifting around the station, I think — but it amuses me to think of such a homey touch being added to our outpost on the edge of the final frontier. Because really, who doesn’t want a nice hot beverage at the end of a long day of exploration and experimentation?

The launch itself was flawless after being pushed back a day due to weather concerns:

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However, as inspiring and lovely as that was, the part of the launch that was most interesting (to me at least) ended in a spectacular failure. For the second time, SpaceX attempted to bring the first stage of the Falcon 9 booster rocket back to Earth under its own power and land it on an unmanned sea-going platform.  The idea, if this system can be perfected, is to someday have the boosters return to the launch site and “soft-land,” so they can be easily refurbished, refueled and used again at an enormous cost saving over today’s “use ’em and toss ’em” paradigm. You know, the same thing the space shuttles were supposed to do but never quite managed.

Anyhow, the first try at a powered soft landing back in January ended in a fireball when the rocket came in on an angle and struck the deck of the platform barge, a failure that was later attributed to the vehicle running low on the hydraulic fluid that operated its control fins. For yesterday’s effort, the rocket was equipped with a larger supply of fluid, which helped it reach the target… but unfortunately, it toppled over after touchdown, resulting in yet another “rapid unscheduled disassembly”:

Failure or not, though, I find that video pretty exciting. The rocket is not under remote control during these landing attempts; it’s autonomous, and its downright astounding to me that it found its way to a relatively tiny barge without any human help. The only problem that I can see is that it came down too fast, something that surely can be adjusted on subsequent attempts. Keep in mind that NASA blew up several rockets during the ramp-up to actually flying a man during Project Mercury, and this was only SpaceX’s second try. I’m confident — okay, I’m hopeful — that they can make this work. In part, because reusability has been the goal in spaceflight for decades, and it’s about damn time somebody figures out how to do it, but mostly, to be honest, because I just really like the idea of a rocket landing on its tail like the spaceships in all those old movies from the 1950s. I’ll bet Elon Musk saw all those flicks as a kid, too…

The next attempt will take place as part of the resupply mission scheduled for June.

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