Already a full month into 2016, it is a good time to look back to 2015 which was a year with a lot of developments in spaceflight and a first rendezvous with a mysterious far away dwarf-planet. The first steps towards rocket landings were made by private companies SpaceX and Blue Origin, Pluto and Charon finally pictured from “up close” and your Orbital Sciences Director had a few minor invasions on his own.
The 10th of January saw the first ever attempted rocket landing on a ship floating in sea. SpaceX unfortunately landed their Falcon 9 too hard on the platform and the rocket exploded in a great fireball. Even while the landing failed, the payload to the ISS containing cubesats and supplies for the astronauts arrived in perfect condition. A month later on the 11th of February, SpaceX launched and made an attempted landing again. However this time the weather was too rough to let the barge into sea. The rocket made a soft landing in sea, again right on the expected target, just no floor to land on.
Incidentally on that same date ESA launched and tested their IXV, a possible step up to a reusable crew-return vehicle.
April 14th saw another landing attempt by SpaceX, this time the barge was waiting for the rocket, and again the landing was right on target. Again the Falcon 9 landed too hard, fell over and exploded. There was another SpaceX launch that month, however no landing was attempted this time.
In June, disaster struck for SpaceX, the Falcon 9 experienced a rapid disintegration event T+139 seconds after launch on June 28. SpaceX was forced to halt their operations until the investigations into the failure were completed.
On November 23rd the company Blue Origin was the first to succeed landing a rocket after going to space. They released a capsule for future space tourists that would be in space for 4 minutes before dropping back to earth. It should be noted that even though Blue Origin landed successfully they didn’t actually bring any cargo to the ISS on the meantime, just passing the Karman line (the official border between earth and space) before returning. However impressive, SpaceX decided to do it right a month later. This time they chose not to land on a barge but on solid ground. This proved to be successful, on December 22nd SpaceX launched and landed their new and improved Falcon 9, taking into account everything found during the RDE investigation.
2016 has already seen another SpaceX barge landing attempt and Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket launching again after the landing in November.
We at TSOSD HQ are looking forward to these techniques that can and will make spaceflight cheaper, and maybe in the future affordable for us.
Dwarf Planet wonders
On March 6th the Dawn spacecraft entered the orbit of Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt between Earth and Mars. While approaching the camera’s had picked up some interesting features. Namely bright white spots inside a crater. It was completely unexpected and it took a lot of research and of course fueled many conspiracy theories. It turns out they are mineral salt piles. Another interesting aspect on Ceres is that it has plumes of vapour coming out of some crevices and craters. The spacecraft Dawn is currently in orbit of Ceres and continues to amaze scientists.
Then there was New Horizons, the first ever spacecraft to make a flyby of our most obscure neighbour in the solar system. Only visible from Earth with a very high grade telescope, and still it’s only a small dot. The photographs that New Horizons sent back wowed everybody with only a minor interest in space exploration. Pluto was not some cold dark rock, but actually an active ice planet due to its tidal workings with Charon and the other 3 moons; Hydra, Styx and Nyx. The icy surface features on Pluto are estimated to be merely a few hundred million years old, that is very young in astronomical terms.
The data returned from this mission will continue to be investigated by scientists for at least the coming years. New Horizons already has a few new Kuiper Belt targets, which, if funding for the mission continues could shed more light on the formation of our solar system and maybe to life itself…
TSOSD Invasion of ESTEC
On the 4th of October, Orbital Sciences Director Gonzo attended the ESA ESTEC open day at Noordwijk, The Netherlands. After waking up early on the misty Sunday morning, Gonzo set out towards the train station for a visit to the ESA ESTEC headquarters located in the Netherlands. In this facility most ESA spaceships, robots, probes and satellites are developed and tested before heading to space. The Rosetta spacecraft and lander were both extensively tested here before making a rendezvous with Comet 67P and landing on it in 2014.
After an hour and a half by train and bus, Gonzo arrived at the facility. It was very crowded. Dutch Astronaut Andre Kuipers was about to give a lecture in the main conference hall and unfortunately Gonzo was unable to make it to that lecture. A few hours later would be Matt “Rockstar-scientist” Taylor’s lecture on the Rosetta mission, Gonzo wasn’t going to miss that! In the meantime it was time to browse around the many stands explaining missions and handing out informational posters, flyers, booklets and stickers. -SO MANY STICKERS!-
There was a big scale model of the Rosetta probe with lander, and in the center of a small hall was a model of comet 67P Churyumov–Gerasimenko. In that same hall stood the Rosetta mission booth, handing out DIY papercraft Rosetta + Philae, posters, folders and even fake tattoo’s. Gonzo had a small chat with Matt Taylor and got a picture with the man. After handing him a TSU business card, Gonzo went on his way to look around for another half hour before heading to the conference hall where Matt’s lecture would take place.
After the doors opened, Gonzo found a good spot to sit on the third row, right behind one of ESA’s astronaut reserved seat. The lecture was awesome, not only did Matt Taylor explain the mission findings in a way that was very easy to understand, he was also funny as hell. Cracking joke after joke, “What does this comet smell off? Well, the worst fart you’ve ever smelled would probably not come close.” He had slides to compare the size of the comet to the Death Star from Star Wars and a Borg Cube from Star Trek. He went on to explain the future of Rosetta, the mission has been extended to September 2016 when the Rosetta probe will also make a crash-landing on Comet 67P.
Before Gonzo realised it, the lecture was over. Afterwards there was time for some Q&A and signing of posters or other materials. One person even brought their Rosetta plushie!
After getting a poster and the papercraft Rosetta signed, Gonzo went out to locate his dad who had just arrived and together they went to explore the facility. Ending up in a hangar where some Earth test copies of robots and some space-flown parts were displayed. They were interrupted suddenly by a reporter who wanted to have a small interview about why they were there and what they thought of current affairs. Unfortunately the reporter had not really taken her notes correctly and the eventual article was not that spectacular.
After visiting most of the complex and taking some more folder and information, it was nearly closing time. Gonzo and his dad went back to the car after a great informative day, with bags full of loot.
Later in October when Gonzo was visiting London for MCM Comic Con, he extended his stay to visit another one of Matt Taylor’s lectures. This one hosted by New Scientist, also featured the scientist who made the “sniff-and-taste-apparatus.” Again, comet 67P smells and tastes horrible. Do not try to eat.
Coming up in 2016:
The Toy Soldier Orbital Sciences Directorate will be recruiting Hamstronauts, starting this year. Do you have a hamster (or maybe another pet) you would like to register for the exciting training and eventually work for the Toy Soldier Space Program? Watch this TSU forum thread because more information on this will be released in February!