Thursday, May 21, 2020

email to MASS on Friday May 15, 2020

We are under 12 days to the launch of SpaceX’s DM-2 manned mission to the ISS.  The 2 astronauts went into quarantine yesterday. I’ve hadn’t heard anything preventing a launch on the scheduled date of Wednesday May 27, at 3:32 PM. Possibly the biggest unknown is weather. There has to be good weather at the launch pad, the downrange emergency splashdown area and the landing area for the Falcon 9 core stage. I probably won’t publish the zoom meeting # for our “watch party” until I see a good weather prediction during the Launch Readiness Review on Monday afternoon, May 25.
This weekend there will be a couple of rocket launches from Florida. On Saturday, May 16, the US Air Force will launch its spaceplane, the X-37B, for the 6th time around 7:24 AM. Because of the secrecy of mission, there never is much information about the mission and the plane can spend up to 2 years in orbit before landing back in Florida.
On Sunday, May 17, SpaceX is scheduled to launch its 8th batch of 60 Starlink satellites. Launch is scheduled for 2:53 AM. This will bring the number of Starlink satellites up to 480. SpaceX will be using this Falcon 9 rocket for the 5th time which will tie their record for the most reuses of a booster.
If you get a chance, try the Dragon (DM-2) ISS Docking Simulator. Keith put a link to it on our website, . Click on the title bar option of “ISS Docking Sim”. I’m only batting 1 for 4 on successful dockings. I usually get to within 5 meters before losing control. Hint: use the keyboard keys (a, s, d and w) for the position controls instead of mouse clicks. Also check out Scott Manley’s youtube tutorial, for additional tips.

Friday, April 24, 2020

email to MASS on April 24, 2020 titled "MASS update for April 24, 2020

As we are winding down our 6th week of quarantine, I really thought it would have ended by now. But Carol and I are doing our civic duty and keeping our social distancing. I’ve experienced my first public outing in a face mask in order to get of all things, a case of bourbon. COVID19 has no idea how resolute these baby-boomer’s can be.
SpaceX launched another set of 60 StarLink satellites, Starlink6, on Wednesday, 4/22. They increased their constellation to 420 satellites, landed their 51st first stage core on a barge, established Falcon 9 as the most launched active US rocket with their 83rd successful launch. The launch used a rocket for the 4th time and reused the $6 million fairings. SpaceX recovered their fairings by plucking them out of the ocean. Apparently catching them in the big boat nets is more difficult than anticipated.
I’ve checked a couple of Starlink satellite observation sites and they predict that at 8:56 PM on Saturday, 4/25, numerous satellites should be visible from Chicago. They will appear 11 degrees in the NW, maximize at 41 degree elevation, and then disappear at 37 degrees elevation in the NE. I don’t think the clouds will cooperate, but I thought it was worth sharing. The StarLink6 satellites are brightest and closest to each other just after launch.
It looks like NASA doesn’t want people to head to Florida to watch the SpaceX DM-2 Commercial Crew launch. What a shame, after almost 9 years of waiting for astronauts to launch from US soil, we have to be social distancing. If they successfully launch on May 27, it will be 3246 days since the last shuttle launch on July 8, 2011. But who is counting? It’s hard to put that in perspective. But think of 4 years of high school, plus 4 years of college, plus another year, wow that’s a long time to wait.
The Martian Mole on Insight has performed another 25 strokes and under ideal conditions it would have gone a couple of inches farther into the soil but scientists said it only got another half inch of progress. They will try with “arm pinning” to get the mole to go fully into the ground. And then cover it up with dirt to see if it can penetrate on its own. That update was from March 18 and I haven’t heard any updates yet. With only 15 inches of progress, Dean you have the inside track with your pessimistic depth guess of only 42 inches.
Intuitive Machines (a lunar X Prize company) announced the date of their Falcon9 powered lunar launch as Oct 11, 2021. They will deliver 100 kg of payload for a 14 day mission to the moon’s surface. It is nice to see US companies jumping in to NASA’s support of lunar payloads. Other lunar X Prize companies from Israel and Indian have not been successful with landings. I’m interested to see how they will fare. In a related news item, Masten Space Systems is getting some money to research injecting aluminum into their rocket exhaust to spray the lunar landing area to minimize dust. That’s the kind of innovative I’m looking for from our space program. Let’s not spend it all on SLS.
Ad Astra, Jim

Saturday, April 18, 2020

email to MASS on Apr 18 titled "MASS update for Apr 18th"

Finishing up on our 5th week of quarantine, but things are still moving along in rocket launches. NASA announced today that the SpaceX Commercial Crew launch is now scheduled for Wednesday afternoon on May 27th. This is good because 3 astronauts just returned Friday morning from the ISS and the US is down to just Chris Cassidy to man the station. I’m sure he would appreciate 2 more people to help change filters and perform science experiments. The SpaceX astronauts might spend 2-3 months aboard the ISS. I’m looking forward to watching them head out to the launch pad in their gull-winged white Teslas.
As far as our third attempt to guess the date for the return of astronauts launched from American soil, Hank, who is new to the group, has the inside track with his guess of May 29 for the docking to ISS. Good luck, Hank. I’ve updated our spreadsheet of guesses on our website,
On April 11, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13 launch which was labeled as our “most successful” failure. I always felt sorry for our local astronaut, Jim Lovell, who got to circle the moon on two Apollo missions, 8 and 13, but never got to land. We can draw inspiration from Apollo 13, with their “can do” spirit and the quote “failure is not an option”.
Last night, Friday, my wife Carol saw at 8PM, a train of 15, I think, SpaceX Starlink satellites go across the sky. I checked my phone app and 26 Starlink’s will pass close to the bright orange star, Arcturus, tonight from 9:00 PM until 9:40. If skies permit, check it out. Arcturus can be found by following the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle which is usually visible in our light-polluted skies. Last night the satellites where separated by about 10 degrees which can be measured by holding your fist up at an arm’s length distance.
Ad Astra, Jim

Friday, April 10, 2020

email to MASS on April 10, 2020 titled "My 3rd weekly MASS update"

I hope everyone is doing ok, Carol and I are hunkered down. We’ve started to exhaust our Netflix video content and are considering playing chess with each other. We’ll see if I pull off a Queen’s Gambit with her. I just don’t want to jeopardize my portion of that great home cooking.
Even under these difficult conditions, Commercial Crew is making progress. NASA has said they will supply SpaceX with a C130 transport plane so they can perform their last 2 parachute tests for the Crew Dragon. 24 successful tests have already been done but SpaceX recently lost their helicopter based testing device when it had to be dropped before the chutes were enabled. NASA also said one final review of the Super Draco thruster engines on the Dragon has to be done. After these 2 criteria, the first Crew Dragon is still scheduled for the second half of May. I’ve put a new version of the MASS Prize on the website that correctly labels Harry’s date guess. Look for it under, MASS on Commercial Crew – MASS Prize 3.
Boeing’s position has also clarified. They will repeat their botched uncrewed test of the StarLiner capsule this Fall. Their manned first mission will probably not occur until 2021. So NASA will be relying on SpaceX to keep the ISS crew well stocked with American astronauts.
Russia has just launched another crew of 3 to the ISS on Thursday, April 9. It consists of 2 Russians and 1 American astronaut, Chris Cassidy. In just 7 days, Chris will be the only American on the ISS. NASA now plans for the 2 SpaceX astronauts on the initial mission to spend 2 to 3 months on the ISS. Those astronauts will return to Earth one month before SpaceX launches another operational crew of 4 astronauts (2 SpaceX, 1 NASA and 1 Japanese) to the ISS. That might occur before the end of 2020. Things are moving fast.
This weekend was to be a worldwide celebration called “Yuri’s night” to commemorate Yuri Gagarin’s April 12, 1961 first man in space accomplishment. Those festivities and the ones to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 13 have also been postponed. Hopefully things will return to normal soon. We also passed the 4 year mark on April 8 for the 2024 total solar eclipse moving south to north across the United States. Start your count down now.
Finally, Keith has done a great job revamping of our website. It has a new look and some added features. You can now get Chicago times for Sun, Moon and planet rises and sets, plus ISS sightings and tracking of any satellite you choose from Leo Labs. I find it fascinating to enter “starlink” satellites and increase the speed to 100 and watch those satellites wiz by over Chicago. Look for the new features under Midwest Stats. I’ve also added my weekly emails under Jim’s Blog if you ever need to refer back to them if they get lost in your inbox. Keith’s new look to the website has enhanced the site’s indexing in Google. Now if you Google “masscosmos” we are the first site returned.
Take care, Ad Astra, Jim

Monday, April 6, 2020

email to MASS on April 3, 2020

Email titled "Another Friday has arrived" April 3, 2020 4:08 PM

Time marches on, I hope everyone is coping well with our social distancing.
Good news for SpaceX, NASA still talks about the first commercial crew Dragon launching in the second half of May. They even announced the crew of 4 for the next mission, 2 SpaceX astronauts, a lady astronaut from NASA and a Japanese astronaut. NASA also announced that the NASA “worm” logo will be on the Falcon 9 rocket but the astronauts will wear the “meatball” logo on the spacesuits. I hope the lack of logo consistency doesn’t cause the mission any problems. I remember when the use of metric and English units caused a Mars mission to fail.
SpaceX was also selected as the first company to do cargo supply missions to the Lunar Gateway. Their craft will be called the Dragon XL and use a Falcon Heavy rocket to get 5 metric tons (11,000 lbs) to lunar orbit.
On a sad note, Bigelow Aerospace which sent the BEAM inflatable module to the ISS in 2016, laid off its entire workforce. The fact that Axion Aerospace got the contract for a commercial module on the ISS might be the biggest reason for their demise. I had high hopes for Bigelow building the first orbiting hotel around Earth.
The European company, OneWeb, declared bankruptcy. OneWeb was the closest competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink, “internet from space” program. They already had 74 satellites in orbit. SpaceX has 360 satellites in orbit and launching 60 of them at a time. Maybe investors think no one can compete with SpaceX’s price point for launching things into orbit.
The helicopter for the Perseverance rover made its last blade spinning test before being packed away for launch on July 17. It’s never too early to start eating those lucky JPL peanuts to insure a successful mission.
Russia is scheduled to launch a crew of 3 to the ISS on April 9th. Chris Cassidy is the only American on the mission and after 8 days he will be the only American astronaut on the ISS for 6 months unless SpaceX gets its crew of 2 up there using Crew Dragon.
Take care all, Ad Astra, Jim

email to MASS on March 27, 2020

Corona virus might keep our social distance for a while, so I've been emailing the MASS group on Friday afternoons and thought I'd archive the emails on the blog.

My first email was on Friday March 27, 2020 at 4:19 PM titled "Weekly Update".

Just checking in from my quarantine, it wasn’t a great week for SpaceX’s Commercial Crew. On 3/18, SpaceX launched another 60 Starlink satellites but the Falcon9 rocket lost an engine during ascent. They were pushing the envelope of reusability by using the first stage core for the 5th time. But now they and NASA say a review of what happened needs to be done before launching people on the Falcon9. SpaceX always planned on using brand new Falcon9 cores for crewed launches.
A second issue arose when SpaceX was doing one of their parachute tests on 3/24. The Dragon capsule mass simulator hanging below a helicopter became unstable and the pilot cut it lose before the chutes were armed. The mass simulator crashed to the ground and was destroyed.
No official word on whether the mid to late May date for DM-2 will be delayed. The “Everyday Astronaut”, one of my YouTube space experts, feels the mission will be pushed back until July.
NASA has shut down many of its centers. Work on the “green run” test of the SLS 1st stage and preparation of the James Webb Telescope have been stopped. Fortunately, work on the Perseverance Mars rover continues. NASA must launch it in the mid July to early August timeframe or wait 26 months for another opportunity. I’m hoping China with their Mars rover and the United Arab Emirates with their Mars orbiter, called HOPE, launching on a Japanese rocket, both make their July launch dates.
There was a positive tweet on March 13 from the Insight burrowing probe, the mole, on Mars. Apparently by pushing on the back of the mole scientists successfully got the mole to go deeper. But there has been no update on the depth attained. So the old 14 inch depth might still be the limit of progress.
As always, Ad Astra, hope everyone is doing well, Jim

Thursday, August 31, 2017

It has been a long time since I blogged, but the August 21, 2017 eclipse makes me want to share my experiences.

My first tactic concerning the eclipse was to avoid crowds by targeting Nebraska over Carbondale, IL. Alliance, NE with its Car-Henge sculpture looked like a good spot. It would be a 835 miles trip from Villa Park, IL  We considered taking Amtrak to Minnesota so that we and our son could drive due west and approach Nebraska from the north. Hopefully highways would be less traveled than the southern approach which could be flooded with people from Denver. As I monitored sky cover predictions, I looked for other sites a little closer on the eastern side of Nebraska. Ravenna, NE was only 628 miles (9 hr 21 min travel time) from home, had a population of 1300 and was selling $10 tickets to their baseball fields. I especially like Nebraska because Interstate 80 went east-west through the total eclipse zone for at least a couple hundred miles.This would allow for last minute shifting due to any predicted clouds.

That all changed on Aug 19. I had been monitoring "sky cover" conditions with SkippySky and NOAA's National Digital Forecast Database for a few days. With the 8AM Aug 19 prediction, NOAA "sky cover" percentage was 45% for Ravenna and 55% for Alliance in Nebraska, Carbondale was 32% and Tennessee was 18%. I quickly started to check out 11 towns in Kentucky and Tennessee.

The city of Gallatin, TN, about 30 miles northeast of Nashville and 463 miles from home (7 hr 26 min travel time), seemed to have the best plans with an event called "Eclipse Encounter" in a place called Triple Creek Park. Even though there was no charge, they had an online EventBrite site to make an RSVP for an electronic ticket.With only 2 days to go, I reserved three tickets and was surprised that only several hundred tickets out of 1500 had been requested.

I continued to monitor "sky cover" predictions until 6 AM on Sunday, Aug. 20th. It wasn't great news. Tennessee had degraded to 26% but Nebraska was 46-62% and Carbondale was also 26%. We left with my son driving his truck at 10:30 AM with the intent of getting as close to Gallatin as possible. Eventually our stopping place was the Four Point Hilton hotel in Louisville, KY. We still had about 160 miles to make Gallatin and if we wanted to arrive at the park at 5 AM, that meant a wake up time of 12:45 AM.This might have been the most expensive hotel stay on an hourly basis. The room cost $200 and we were only there for 8 hours of which only 3 hours were sleep.

We left the hotel at 1:35 AM and I immediately was concerned that the powers to be didn't want us to make it to the eclipse. One interchange down the road, Interstate 65 was closed due to an accident. We exited, travelled side roads for a couple of interchanges and got back on.Our only other stop was at a Waffle House when we started taking state highway109 at the Kentucky-Tennessee border. It was freezing in the restaurant and service was sloooooow!

We arrived at Triple Creek Park at 5:05 AM and we were maybe the 50th car into the park. I looked at the stars in the sky to determine our compass directions. Using my SkyGuide app on my phone, I determined the position of the sun at eclipse time. We waited in the truck until daylight broke and some of the dew burned off the grass. Rather than carry our chairs any distance, we decided to set up just on the edge of the 300 car parking lot. We pitched our chairs only about 50 feet from the truck.

The partial eclipse started at 11:59:04 CDT. I was surprised that the 7 hours of waiting went pretty fast. It helped to make a few indoor bathroom breaks which was a several block walk but better than the port-a-potie option. Carol and I purchase three Gallatin Eclipse shirts for $15 each. Lucky we had the exact $45 or we would have had to wait for the lady with change. I struck up a few conversations with a gentleman and his daughter from Dayton, Ohio, a lady wearing a Bar Harbor, Maine t-shirt and a couple of guys with a sun projection device and a large pair of binoculars with solar filters on it. Our solar glasses from Triton came in handy to monitor the progress of the partial eclipse.

Temperatures were rising to about 90 degrees with high humidity. The three of us did our best to stay under our two umbrellas. Lucky our son Curt brought the bigger umbrella. A few clouds started to form in the sky. At one point the sun was covered for a few minutes.As the partial eclipse progressed, looking around the park, it seemed that things were taking on a darker tint like if you were wearing sunglasses.

It was another hour and a half until totality started at 1:27:25 PM. What a cosmic and emotional moment. I got a lump in my throat as the crowd oh'ed and ah'ed as darkness decended.What a cool effect to see the last bit of sun called the "diamond ring" disappear. Now, no eye protection was needed. We were going to get the full 2 min and 40 sec of totality with no cloud near the sun. The center line of the eclipse path went right through the north end of the park, so we were within a mile of that. I used a hand held finder scope with 9x to look at the sun but it was too jittery to get a decent glimpse of the sun. Just staring with my eyes, I saw three spikes in the corona. Two were on the west and one on the east. The sky had a strange pearlescence color to it. Looking at the people near by, they seemed like cardboard cutouts moving in front of a flat background. What a strange feeling to look up and see a round black ball where the sun used to be.

It was a very quick two and a half minutes. Once again the "diamond ring" appeared on the western edge of the sun. You knew that signaled the end of totality. Sky & Telescope said you could look at this phase of the eclipse for only 5 seconds before risking eye damage. Back on with the eclipse glasses. We didn't dawdle and began to pack up our stuff. Being so close to the truck, we thought we'd beat the crowd out of the park.

By 1:40 PM we were pulling out of our parking spot but so were many thousands of the 50-60,000 people in the park. It took 20 minutes to exit the park. Driving went well for a while until we go to I65. Stop and go traffic with the stops lasting 15 minutes. Waze my traffic app on my phone send us on a couple of goose chases trying to save some ficticious minutes. Some of the back roads were so narrow, two cars barely fit and the corn was growing 3 feet from the edge of the road.

We drove a few hundred miles to the west on the William Natcher ParkWay and the Audubon Parkway from Bowling Green to avoid the traffic on I65 but heading north on HW41 we again came to a complete standstill. We gave up and stayed at a hotel in Evansville, IN. Moral of the story: it pays to hunker down for at least a day after the eclipse.The next morning we zigzaged our way to I57 and back home. What a wonderful life memory!