BTS: Building a Comet as Rosetta Nears Historic Landing

The ESA Rosetta Mission

The Rosetta spacecraft was launched on 2 March 2004; its target was a small 10-km wide comet called 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P/GC) roughly 500 million kilometers distant (between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter). It used four gravity assists (one by Mars, three by Earth) to sling shot it out to the distance of its target. Rosetta entered a hibernation phase in June 2011, which is designed to conserve power at such great distances from the Sun. Earlier this year, with great fanfare, on 20 January 2014 Rosetta awoke from its 3 year hibernation and began stretching its legs. On 6 August 2014, Rosetta reached its target and successfully entered into orbit around it, a first for human kind. Rosetta wants to learn a lot about comets during this mission: the origin of comets, the relationship of cometary and interstellar material, how the solar system formed. Further, it will be learning about what the comet is made of, the dynamics of the system, how outgassing happens, etc.
Rosetta actually comes in two pieces: the orbiter and the lander. The orbiter is outfitted with 12 science instruments and will continue to orbit the small comet for the duration of the mission. The lander, named Philae, carries with it 10 science instruments that will help it understand, amongst other things, the internal composition and density of the comet. This lander will be released on 12 November 2014 at 3:03am EST, with touchdown occurring around 11am EST. Philae will be released approximately 22 km from the centre of the comet. This is an unpowered decent, done only by the gravity of 67P/GC. Upon touching down, the 3 feet of Philae will deploy screws to lock it down, and two harpoons will be jettisoned for further support. The landing site, ‘site J,’ is located on the ‘head’ lobe of the double lobed comet, and is relatively inactive. This is the first soft landing ever on a cometary body. (there is an approximately 30 min time delay for messages).
Suggested Reading: ESA Rosetta Mission HomepageScience @ NASA, Rosetta Wiki.

ALMA spots a Planetary Disk

ALMA pointed its (currently) 66 7-m dishes towards the young star HL Tauri and observed something groundbreaking: a solar system in the midst of formation. Models, simulations, and earlier observations have shown that planets probably form inside a dusty disk of material that forms around a newly formed star. Since the disk will likely be slightly inhomogenous, it’s likely that gravity will begin to collect matter in various places throughout the disk. As this happens, and the globules become bigger, their gravity will begin to sweep up material in their orbit as the travel around their parent star. This SHOULD leave behind massive gaps in the dusty disk, a prediction that has now been proven to be true by observation. Gaps can also form due to gravitational resonances (like Saturn’s rings for instance), so an analysis will be needed to decide just how many planets are forming in this dusk of material. Nevertheless, this is exciting science.
Suggested Reading: ESO Press Release, ALMA Press Release, Bad Astronomy article,

Update on Antares and SpaceShipTwo

Orbital Sciences: latest press release here. Early investigations show that it was likely a turbopump related failure in the main Aero Rocketdyne AJ26 propulsion system. As a result, this system will be discontinued from use. It appears this is not a one off disaster, but a flaw in the design of the AJ26, making it’s further use dangerous.
Virgin Galactic: ‘Based on information they have released about their investigation to date, the NTSB has recovered the intact engine and rocket propulsion fuel tanks with no signs of burn through or mid-air explosion. This definitively dismisses the premature and inaccurate speculation that the problem was related to the engine or the fuel.
The NTSB also evaluated the vehicle’s feathering mechanism, which is the unique technology that turns the wing booms into position for re-entry. The NTSB indicated that the lock/unlock lever was pulled prematurely based on recorded speed at the time, and they have suggested that subsequent aerodynamic forces then deployed the feathering mechanism, which resulted in the in-flight separation of the wings and vehicle. At this time, the NTSB investigation is still ongoing and no cause has yet been determined – these are purely facts based on initial findings. We are all determined to understand the cause of the accident and to learn all we can.’

BTS: Canadian Mission to Mars Needs Public Support

BTS: The planet Mars is a busy place

Two new spacecrafts in orbit around Mars

On 21 September 2014, the MAVEN spacecraft entered into orbit around the red planet, and 3 days later, on 24 September 2014, the MOM spacecraft accomplished the same feat. The Mars Atmosphere Volatile Element and Evolution (MAVEN) craft was sent by NASA in partnership with the University of Colorado, to study the Martian atmosphere. Specifically, its mission is to determine how the concentration of volatile chemicals (like water, carbon dioxide, etc.) has changed over time. This will hopefully shed light on what Mars’ climate may have been like in the past. The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was the first interplanetary mission sent by the country of India. It marks a huge leap forward in the nation’s growing space industry and gives them the prestigious title of 4th agency to put an artificial satellite into Martian orbit. Both crafts have returned wonderful images as they stretch their legs in their new homes.
Suggested Reading: Bad Astronomy review, NASA pics from MAVEN, Planetary Society on MOM, MAVEN homepage, MOM homepage, MAVEN wiki, MOM wiki, MAVEN update,


Curiosity Update

The Curiosity rover has been rolling around the Martian surface for the last 2 Earth years (1 Martian year), making many new discoveries. This includes the conclusion that in the past, Mars must have had a warmer and wetter environment. Recently, Curiosity has reached the base of Mt. Sharp, a mountain located in the middle of Gale Crater, and the ultimate destination Curiosity has had all along. On 24 September 2014, Curiosity performed its first drilling operation at the mountain, drilling out a small sample from the rock. Curiosity also snapped an image of a small spherical rock while en route to Mt. Sharp. The likely origin of the ball of rock is within a wetter environment.

Suggested Reading: Curiosity homepage, NASA Drilling press release, Universe Today article,


Three new additions to the ISS

On 25 September 2014, a Soyuz rocket launched 3 humans towards the International Space Station. On board were Alexander Samokutyaev, Barry Wilmore, and Elena Serova. Serova is the first female cosmonaut in 17 years Roscosmos has launched, and the first Russian woman ever to board the ISS. The launch returns the ISS crew to a team of 6. Over the next 3 months Expedition 41 will continue to perform the more than 100 different science experiments aboard the ISS.
Suggested Reading: ISS homepage, Serova’s Bio,  Expedition 41 description,


Toronto #CSATweetup

The Canadian Space Agency Agence Spatiale Canadien (CSA-ASC) has organized a Tweet Up for 30 September 2014 in Toronto. The attendees will participate in an ‘amazing race’ style competition: Team Hansen vs. Team Saint-Jacques. The Tweet Up is in conjunction with the 65th International Astronautical Congress. The theme of this congress is ‘Our World Needs Space;’ it will explore the relationship between Earth and space, as well as the partnership of public and private money in the research and development of the space industry.
Suggested Reading: #CSATweetup homepage, CSA twitter account, IAC2014 website,

BTS#: NASA artners with SpaceX, Boeing on ISS as probes arrive at Mars

NASA Announces Partnership with Boeing and SpaceX

Every single person who has ever launched into space has done it at the hands of a government agency: NASA, Roscosmos, and most recently, the Chinese National Space Administration. Of late, however, there has been a very noticeable dearth of launches from the United States. As the Shuttle program shut down, there was no new craft for the USA to use, and as a result they have been purchasing flights aboard the Russian Soyuz craft. This is limiting in many ways: it’s expensive, only 3 astronauts/cosmonauts can go at a time, subject to political strain. The United States needs a new launch system to get their astronauts to the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and further. On 16 September 2014, NASA announced how they’re going to do that: by contracting two private American companies to do it for them. The two winners of the $6.8 billion competition were Boeing (with its CTS-100 capsule), and SpaceX (with its Dragon capsule). This decision marks a pivotal turning point in human history. This is the point where private industry became a part of human space flight.

Suggested Reading: NASA Press Release, SpaceX youtube,

MAVEN and MOM arrive at Mars

Mars needs MOM. Two satellites, MAVEN of the University of Colorado, USA, and MOM, of the Indian Space Research Organization, launched in November of 2013 on a 10 month trek to the red planet. They launched so close together, because in order to get to Mars in the most efficient way, engineers must launch when the planets are lining up properly. Waiting for the window, there can be a backlog of missions. As a result, both of the Mars-orbiters-to-be will be inserting into Martian orbit over the next 5 days: MAVEN on 21 September 2014, MOM on 24 September 2014. Both orbiters will be attempting to better understand the atmosphere of Mars. Specifically, MAVEN will be looking at how the Sun’s interaction with the Martian atmosphere leads to loss of volatile chemicals (such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen gas, and water). The MOM orbiter from India is more of a wayfinding mission. This is the first interplanetary mission India has ever attempted, and is meant to be a demonstration of the technology required to successfully insert into Martian orbit. Nevertheless, MOM carries with it atmospheric instruments, and ground imaging cameras.

Suggested Reading: MAVEN homepage, MOM wikipedia, MAVEN launch youtube,

Fat black hole in a little Galaxy

There are two kind of black holes in the Universe: super massive black holes (SMBH, weighing at millions or billions of solar masses) and stellar mass black holes (weighing at 10s to 100s of solar masses). A long held belief by astronomers is that most, if not all, large and well established galaxies would contain a SMBH at their centres. In many cases, we have direct evidence for the existence of SMBHs (see this video of stars orbiting the Milky Way’s SMBH, and this wikipedia list); by extension the assumption is that many major galaxies also house a similar object. Comparing the mass of the SMBH at the centre to the mass of the host galaxy, a relationship has been noticed, wherein the bigger the galaxy the bigger the SMBH. Typically, the mass of the SMBH would be 1% or less the mass of the galaxy (though there are some serious outliers to that relationship). It was unknown if any smaller or dwarf galaxies could harbour such a massive black hole.
A recent study using the Gemini Observatory has looked at the Ultra Compact Dwarf galaxy M60-UCD1. Astronomers suspected there to be an SMBH to be present, given to the unusual X-ray activity at the core. By measuring the speed at which stars at the centre of the dwarf galaxy orbit the centre, they were able to measure the mass of the object they’re orbiting. It weighs in at 21 million times the mass of the Sun, which is 5 times larger than the Milky Way’s SMBH. What makes that surprising is the dwarf galaxy is much smaller than the MW, both in size and mass. The dwarfs SMBH is 18% the mass of the host galaxy. The astronomers suspect it’s large mass compared to it’s host is likely because the dwarf galaxy was much bigger in the past, but has been stripped of most of its matter during an interaction with nearby major galaxy M60.

Suggested Reading: Nature Press Release, Nature Journal ArticleSagittarius A*,

BTS: Canadian Astronaut under the sea and a solar flare hits Earth