Pluto and Charon come into view

Pluto and Charon come into view

Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, posed for a solemn portrait taken by NASA’s New Horizon’s probe, which is only two weeks away from its close encounter with the dwarf planet.

The newest snapshot of Pluto and Charon shows two icy gray circles hovering in a pitch-black void. In previous images, the two objects often looked like highly pixelated smudges of color — barely distinguishable as spheres. But with New Horizons only about 10 million miles (16 million kilometers) away from Pluto (and closing that distance by more than 30,000 miles, or 48,000 km, every hour), the view of these unexplored worlds is getting clearer every day.

“Looking at pictures on the website, you can see that Pluto and Charon are becoming more distinct in their surface features,” Alice Bowman, the missions operations manager for New Horizons, said today (June 30) in a mission update. “It’s getting pretty exciting. And every day is bringing new features into light.” [New Horizons’ Pluto Imagery Will Amaze Us (Video)]
New Horizons launched in January of 2006 and has spent the last nine-plus years making its way toward Pluto and the region of icy bodies beyond Neptune, known as the Kuiper Belt. Although four other human-made probes have ventured past the orbit of Neptune, none have done a close study of Pluto and its moons. Even the Hubble Space Telescope’s images of this small, dim dwarf planet are highly pixelated and blurry. New Horizons hopes to reveal a detailed look at the surface of Pluto, study its atmosphere and much more.

The new portrait of Pluto and Charon was taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instrument onboard New Horizons. These images are not only for scientific and aesthetic purposes, but also for navigational ones, according to a statement from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland (mission control for New Horizons).

With nearly 3 billion miles (4.8 billion km) between them, it takes about 4.5 hours to send a signal from the Maryland control center to New Horizons, Bowman said. As a result, team members have to tell the probe what to do (such as which instruments to point at Pluto) long before the probe actually does it. When the probe makes its close flyby of Pluto on July 14, the team will not be able to make any last-minute adjustments. Instead, New Horizons runs prewritten command sequences, most of which were written years before they were executed.

The command sequences must also indicate where Pluto is located relative to the probe, and thus where New Horizons should point its instruments. The New Horizons team has been constantly updating that navigational information as the probe moves closer and can obtain more precise information about Pluto’s location. Earlier this month, the team executed a course correction to ensure the spacecraft didn’t arrive at its close encounter point too early; that kind of miscalculation could cause the probe to take photos of empty space instead of the dwarf planet, researchers said.

Full Portrait of Pluto and Charon
Pin It The full portrait of Pluto and and its largest moon Charon, taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instrument on board New Horizons, and released on June 29.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research InstituteView full size image
In the next few days, Bowman said, the New Horizons team will be uploading the command sequence that will guide the probe through its historic flyby. There’s also a possibility that the team will execute another course correction.

“And of course [we’ll be] getting down lots of science data, optical navigation data,” Bowman said. “It’s going to be great.”

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Houston Announces Spaceport, by Robert Z. Perlman

Houston Announces Spaceport, by Robert Z. Perlman

HOUSTON — The Houston airport where astronauts have departed on training flights for more than 50 years is now host to the United States’ newest commercial spaceport.

The Houston Airport System (HAS) on Tuesday (June 30) was granted a launch site license from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) establishing Ellington Airport near the NASA Johnson Space Center as the tenth commercial spaceport in the country.

“Houston has a rich history in space operations. We have a first-class airport system that already connects Houston to the rest of the globe. We want to make sure that airport system is part of connecting Houston to space,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker said at a press conference Tuesday

The spaceport announcement came nearly two years after the Houston City Council first supported the project. The FAA license paves the way for Ellington to potentially host a number of commercial space operations, from launching micro-satellites to spacecraft manufacturing.

Launches from the new Houston Spaceport will be limited to vehicles that take off and land like an aircraft.

FAA Gives Launch License to Houston SpaceportPin It George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, presents Houston’s Mayor Annise Parker with the launch license establishing Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport, June 30, 2015.
Credit: Z. Pearlman View full size image
“Not all launches into space need to be vertical launches,” explained the mayor. “We can do horizontal launches and, over time, that’s exactly what we expect to have happen.”

Sierra Nevada Corporation, with its vertically launched but horizontally landed Dream Chaser space plane, earlier this year signed an agreement with HAS to use the spaceport as a landing site. The company has proposed the Dream Chaser to NASA to deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station under a commercial services contract.

Similarly, Intuitive Systems, which is developing a vehicle capable of landing scientific and engineering samples from the space station, announced Tuesday its desire to be an anchor tenet at Ellington.

Other horizontally launched (and landed) vehicles are now being developed to support flying space tourists, including Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx.

“I am absolutely convinced that in just the next few years, we are going to see multiple companies offering suborbital human spaceflights on a regular, frequent basis,” George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said. “It won’t be long before we are seeing several suborbital flights per week, and eventually, one or more launches per day.”

Nield and Parker were joined at the press conference by Johnson Space Center director and former astronaut Ellen Ochoa in noting how NASA’s proximity bolstered the case for the Houston Spaceport. Ellington Airport hosts today a fleet of about 25 NASA aircraft — including T-38 astronaut training jets, several hangars and office space.

“It is certainly appropriate that the place known as ‘Space City’ is taking the next step forward in the progression of aerospace activities,” Ochoa commented. “It is natural the city embraces the opportunities that are opening up for the commercialization of space by taking advantage of the expertise within NASA and the aerospace community that supports us here.”

“We’re currently discussing a partnership that will use our safety knowledge, and we’re working with the spaceport on activities like a technology collaboration center,” she said.
The space agency’s involvement is one of the three main reasons why Parker said the Houston Spaceport is primed to compete for commercial space business.

“We have three things that no other spaceport in America has,” the mayor stated. “We have an existing airport [and] we have existing space-oriented infrastructure around the private infrastructure. And we have a history in space, like no place else in America has.”

“We think we can be highly competitive with the others — spaceports that have been created from nothing with large subsidies from their states,” she concluded. “We’re going to start at a much higher level, and we believe we can gain ground quickly going forward.”

Houston SpaceportSpaceport

Light Sail Comes back to life

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Mission managers say the shoebox-sized LightSail satellite powered up its tiny deployment motor Sunday, and data from the diminutive spacecraft indicate its experimental solar sail unfurled in orbit hundreds of miles above Earth.

The deployment sequence began at 3:47 p.m. EDT (1947 GMT) off the west coast of Baja California, when LightSail was in radio contact with a ground station in San Luis Obispo, California.

“Telemetry received on the ground showed motor counts climbing to the halfway point before LightSail traveled out of range,” wrote Jason Davis, a blogger who has provided daily updates since LightSail’s launch for the Planetary Society, which manages the mission. “Power levels were consistent with ground-based deployment tests, and the spacecraft’s cameras were on.”

Mission manager David Spencer said all indications are the sail deployment was proceeding as planned before LightSail flew over the horizon at the San Luis Obispo tracking site, according to Davis.

The deployment milestone marks the end of a nearly 19-day saga since LightSail’s successful launch May 20.

The Planetary Society, an advocacy group co-founded by legendary celebrity-astronomer Carl Sagan, led the development of LightSail with funding from private donors. NASA paid for the spacecraft’s launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

Sagan dreamed of a light-powered spaceship that could travel vast distances through space propelled by photons, the tiny particles that make up beams of light. If a spacecraft could harness light for propulsion, it could accelerate to great speeds without the need for conventional chemical rockets.

The Japanese space agency and NASA have flown solar sails in space before, and the Planetary Society aims to continue experimenting with the technology. Engineers built the LightSail craft currently in orbit to demonstrate the sail design before a more ambitious test in a higher orbit next year.

Since its launch, satellite fell silent twice, leaving engineers worrying the spacecraft was dead before they could even attempt the sail deployment. Officials blamed the problems on a software glitch and an issue with charging the spacecraft’s batteries.

LightSail radioed home Saturday, and ground controllers scrambled to beam up commands to unwind the booms holding the satellite’s four triangular Mylar sails at the earliest opportunity Sunday.

Before LightSail’s launch, the flight plan called for the solar sail to deploy 28 days after liftoff. But with the spacecraft seemingly in precarious health, officials opted to unfurl the sail early.

The first try Sunday did not work, but engineers sent commands to activate LightSail’s deployment motor when it flew over California again about 90 minutes later, and telemetry showed the motor was moving before the satellite flew out of range.

“We couldn’t get signals to and from our LightSail on the first orbital pass, so we tried again on our next orbit — and it worked! We’ve learned a lot about perseverance on this test mission,” said Bill Nye, the Planetary Society’s CEO. “Although it’s in inertial space, LightSail has had me on a rollercoaster. I want to thank the engineering team; they’ve done fantastic work. I especially want to thank our supporters and members, who made this success possible. We are advancing space science and exploration. This mission is part of our mission.”

The next chance for the ground team to hear from LightSail will occur early Monday, when officials hope to confirm the completion of the sail deployment and receive images from cameras aboard the satellite.

If the sail is fully unfurled, it covers an area as big as a home’s master bedroom, or about 344 square feet. Its guiding booms extend 26 feet, or about 8 meters, tip-to-tip, according to Stellar Exploration, the company that manufactured LightSail under a contract with the Planetary Society.

Japan’s Ikaros solar sail is the largest such structure ever deployed in space. It launched as a piggyback payload with the Akatsuki probe to Venus in 2010.

LightSail was designed to extend to a size 80 times its dimensions when packed up for launch inside the satellite, which is based on the popular CubeSat platform and weighs about 10 pounds.

The sail’s membrane is just 4.5 microns thick, one-fourth the thickness of an average trash bag, but its highly reflective coating could make it visible to observers on the ground around sunrise and sunset.

The Planetary Society has a website showing LightSail’s current projected position and the time of its next flyover, based on your device’s current location. The spacecraft’s track takes it between 55 degrees north and south latitude each time around Earth.

Ted Molczan, a respected amateur satellite tracking hobbyist from Canada, said the solar sail will increase the amount of drag pulling LightSail back to Earth.

LightSail flew at an altitude as low as 220 miles on each orbit before Sunday’s deployment, but Molczan said the satellite will quickly fall back into the atmosphere and burn up. He predicted LightSail’s re-entry would occur some time early Wednesday, but cautioned there is high uncertainty in the satellite’s orbit.

Written by Stephen Clark originally for

Is the light sail the future?

Managers in charge of the privately-funded LightSail solar sail in Earth orbit said Wednesday the success of the experiment is a step toward opening up the solar system to scores of modest science probes that could explore space at a fraction of the cost of traditional government-backed missions.

The LightSail spacecraft opened up a 344-square-foot sail Sunday from a container smaller than a shoebox. It was the third time a solar sail successfully deployed in space, but it is the largest such device to ever unfurl from a CubeSat.

LightSail later downlinked an image of one segment of the deployed solar sail.

The popular CubeSat platform is a relatively inexpensive satellite design commonly used by research institutions, universities, government agencies and start-ups to conduct experiments in orbit.

“Ours is a three-unit, or 3U, CubeSat, so it’s 10 x 10 x 30 centimeters (4 x 4 x 12 inches), and that sail deployed bigger than most living rooms,” said Bill Nye, chief executive of the Planetary Society, an advocacy organization which manages the LightSail project. “So we’re very pleased because the sail really did deploy, and we got some very nice images, and one so far that really has my heart. It’s beautiful.”

Scientists want to send CubeSats beyond Earth orbit in the future to allow researchers to access the moon, asteroids and other planets at more affordable costs.

Nye said solar sails are a good substitute for rocket propulsion for compact CubeSats heading into deep space. With the limited room on CubeSats, there is no way to fit a conventional rocket thruster and still have margin for the electrical, communications and scientific instrumentation required for space missions.

First imagined in the early 1900s, solar sails work by using the subtle push from sunlight to gradually change speed. Light particles — called photons — propel solar sails in the way gusts of wind push on sailboats at sea.

Instead of using a rocket to produce the thrust all at once, solar sails build up speed over months and years.

“Solar sailing is worth doing because it has the potential to democratize space,” Nye said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “It will allow smaller organizations, or organizations that don’t want to allocate too much money toward a space mission, to build a small solar sail, and deploy it the way we deployed ours. You can pick almost any destination in the solar system if you have time. You can get there because you never run out of fuel. The sun shines all the time.”

Larger space probes would need a much wider solar sail to reach other planets, so rocket thrusters will not go obsolete any time soon. The more expensive space missions can also do a lot more than CubeSats.

Artist's concept of LightSail backdropped by the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: The Planetary Society

LightSail’s four-piece Mylar solar sail is 4.5 microns thick — about one-fourth the thickness of an average trash bag — but its reflective coating makes it visible to observers on the ground around sunrise and sunset as a faint moving dot in the sky.

The 10-pound satellite comes as close as 346 kilometers — 215 miles — each time around Earth. Its orbit takes LightSail between 55 degrees north and south latitude.

Engineers say the sail extended to about 90 percent of its fully deployed state, and ground controllers may attempt to to drive LightSail’s motor again to finish the sequence.

Atmospheric drag at LightSail’s altitude will likely bring the satellite down Saturday or Sunday. It will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, according to Doug Stetson, LightSail’s project manager and founder of the Space Science and Exploration Consulting Group.

“The solar sail is looking great,” Stetson said Wednesday. “We could not be more pleased with the way it turned out, especially after all the ups and downs that this project has been through, so to see that image come down the way that it did, with the sun in the background, was just very moving, and the entire team is thrilled about it.”

LightSail’s successful sail experiment comes after solar sail tests conducted Japan’s Ikaros spacecraft and NASA’s NanoSail-D2 CubeSat in 2010 and 2011.

The Ikaros mission launched with Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft to Venus and extended a huge 200-square-meter (2,150-square-foot) solar sail. Japanese engineers confirmed the spinning sail flew on the pressure of sunlight and used small liquid crystal devices on the edge of the sail to point the craft.

The NanoSail mission developed by NASA extended a 100-square-foot sail from a CubeSat.

Ikaros weighs nearly 70 times more than LightSail, and Planetary Society officials emphasized the low cost and diminutive size of their satellite.

“We think we’ve demonstrated a very robust and reliable solar sail system that, coupled with small spacecraft like CubeSats, can really open the door to really an entirely new class of low-cost exploration missions … and that’s whats been driving the Planetary Society’s interest in solar sailing for all these years,” Stetson said.

LightSail launched from Cape Canaveral on May 20 as a secondary payload on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. Ground teams lost contact with the craft twice since its launch when software and battery problems threatened the mission.

But LightSail checked in with engineers Saturday, and managers opted to send commands to unfurl the solar sail the next day while the satellite was in range of a ground station at San Luis Obispo, California.

NASA is working on at least two CubeSat-based solar sails for launch on the first test flight of the Space Launch System mega-rocket in 2018. The CubeSats will ride piggyback with an unmanned Orion crew capsule on a shakeout cruise before NASA puts humans aboard the spaceship.

One of the satellites will deploy a solar sail to swing into orbit around the moon in search of water in craters at the lunar south pole. Another will try to harness solar pressure to reach a near-Earth asteroid.

The Planetary Society and its partners are building a “virtually identical” LightSail spacecraft for launch in mid-2016 on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

It will fly in a higher orbit for a more thorough demonstration of the solar sail. The Planetary Society conceived the current mission, which flies too low for solar sailing, to prove LightSail’s sail deployment mechanism.

LightSail is the the society’s second solar sail project after the Cosmos 1 satellite was destroyed in a Russian launch failure in 2005.

Co-founded by celebrity-astronomer Carl Sagan, the Planetary Society has had its eye on solar sails since its establishment in 1980.

Sagan dreamed of a solar sail mission that could pursue Halley’s Comet and pitched the concept during an appearance with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show in 1976.

“We are fulfilling at least a 39-year-old dream, and it means a great deal to me,” Nye said.

Story courtesy of by Stephen Clark

Light SailThe Planetary Society