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Venera 3 Lander

Venera 3 Probe

This thing, which looks like a sad cross between an ur-robot and a space probe, is Venera 3, a uh cross between an ur-robot and a space probe (Occam’s razor sometimes works for identifying weird historical objects). Although the probe did fail…in a way… it was hardly a sad object but rather a glorious milestone for humankind. Here is the story.

The Soviet Union launched Venera 3 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in November of 1965 (as “Days of Our Lives” first went on the air, crisis threatened British Rhodesia, and Björk was born). The probe was designed to fly to Venus and deploy a probe into the (then unknown) atmosphere of that world and ultimately land/crash (?) upon the surface. Venera 3 traveled on its interplanetary journey by means of a Tyazheliy Sputnik (65-092B) craft. It took the vehicle 5 months to hurtle through space to our nearest planetary neighbor. I said that the probe was a sort of ur-robot, but that is actually being pretty generous. The planetary lander contained a radio communication system, some scientific instruments and power sources, and a bitchin’ medallion with the U.S.S.R. coat of arms.


Venera 3 has the distinction of being the first manmade object to reach a different planet. That sort of thing is familiar now (though less than it should be), but I invite you to really think about how utterly astonishing it is. Unfortunately Venera 3’s landing was more or less indistinguishable from crashing: the communications systems failed before any planetary data could be returned (probably upon first contact with Venus’ nightmare caustic atmosphere and scalding temperatures). We only know that Venera 3 is now a heap of melted metal and slag on the surface of Venus because it fell into the planet’s gravity well. Where else could it be?


Regular readers know my fascination with our sister planet. I found the story of Venera 3 on the online Venus scorecard…it appeared after a great many more pathetic stories (Venera 1 and Venera 2 for example are still out there slowly orbiting the Sun—and the Soviet program only named missions after they had attained a degree of success). Ferrebeekeeper is going to be back looking at this scorecard. There are other stories worth telling in there with all the dismal explosions, telemetry failures, miscues, and melted probes. The successes—even painful successes like Venera 3 also reveal the story of Venus (insomuch as we know its story—for the world is still an immense mystery). There need to be a lot more home runs at the bottom of that scorecard.


Pluto (Photo from NASA's New Horizons mission)

Pluto (Photo from NASA’s New Horizons mission)

As promised we are dedicating today’s post to the New Horizons spacecraft. The unmanned robot probe (which is the size of an unwieldy motorcycle) flew past Pluto at 7:49 a.m. EST, traveling at nearly 50,000 kilometers per hour (31,000 mph). At its nearest approach, the craft was only 1200 kilometers (7500 miles) above Pluto’s surface—closer to Pluto than Brooklyn is to Botswana.

Because of the shape and size of the solar system, the telemetry of the mission, and the niceties of radio-communication, NASA did not receive the information dump from the spacecraft until 00:53 GMT Wednesday which is uh…approximately right now! So I haven’t had any time to groom the Pluto data! Today’s post is thus more of a laurel. But the information does exist—the craft survived and completed its mission. We have a trove of knowledge about Pluto to help scientists understand the nature of the solar system—or to conceive of what kinds of new questions to ask about other planetary systems. Maybe I’ll be desperately writing another post tomorrow if scientists unexpectedly find canals on Pluto or discover that Nyx is really a giant egg or something, but most likely this data will take a long time to process and understand. Such is the nature of science (and most worthwhile pursuits). So what is the purpose of this post?

I have never been unduly upset about the designation “dwarf planet” for things like Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Haumea. However I did grow up with “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas” (a much snappier mnemonic than “My very educated mother just served us nothing”), and the idea of Pluto as the final planet still holds undeserved weight in my subconscious. I have thus been taking NASA’s self-congratulatory PR announcements seriously when they say “we complete the initial reconnaissance of the planets.” That sounds right to me. Humankind has gathered a great deal of information about the solar system. Now it is time to brainstorm some new objectives before the fickle public loses its interest and wanders off.

This graphic is old...What next?

This graphic is old…What next?

There is a national consensus that we should be spending all of our money on expensive cell phones and vastly overpriced (yet disturbingly ineffectual) medical care. The space age is reckoned to be over—and space should now be left to the likes of Elon Musk and other James Bond villain-ish mega billionaires. I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, ever so wrong. Now that we have some ideas about what is out there we should use our hard-won knowledge to do tremendous things! My favorite next step is an atmospheric mission to Venus. Let’s send some cool space blimps to sit in the high atmosphere of our sister planet and maybe launch some weird little drones and smaller balloons into the atmosphere. We could find out whether a floating colony is even feasible. Plus it would be like the Montgolfier brothers and the Wright brothers all over—on another world!

Oooh! Can we use a donut-shaped balloon?

Oooh! Can we use a donut-shaped balloon?

The idea of a human mission to Mars and a submarine mission to Europa also have great merit—but I see them as more difficult and with less practical purpose. What are your favorite ideas about what to do next? This seems like a good moment to at least talk about the direction we are headed, even as we sip champagne and dance joyously about what we have done.

"Champagne in Space" by Jshinncreative on DeviantArt

“Champagne in Space” by Jshinncreative on DeviantArt

Artist's redition of New Horizons approaching Pluto and Charon

Artist’s redition of New Horizons approaching Pluto and Charon

After years and years and years of waiting, NASA’s New Horizons mission is officially in its “flyby” stage. As I write, the robot probe is desperately snapping pictures and taking readings of Pluto and its moon Charon. The closest pass-by will arrive next Tuesday when New Horizons will be a mere 12,500km from the dwarf planet.

Hmm, I can sort of see a heart, a whale, and a donut (Photo courtesy of NASA, New Horizons)

Hmm, I can sort of see a heart, a whale, and a donut (Photo courtesy of NASA, New Horizons)

Today’s post serves to alert you to keep your eyes peeled next week! I will be eagerly awaiting news of the developments and I will relay them to you as quickly as possible–although Pluto is 320 light minutes away from us (give or take a few hundred million kilometers) so nobody is going to be caught up in real time. In the meantime, New Horizons is already learning more about the dwarf planet than we have ever known before: this is a mission to a world almost wholly unknown to us despite the fact that we are neighbors in the same star system! Pluto has a distinctive reddish pinkish hue and features an array of high-contrast features (presumably composed of layers of exotic ices) which, to human eyes, superficially resemble familiar shapes. Most notable is a large cardiod-shaped feature in the southern hemisphere unsurprisingly dubbed “the heart”. There is also a planet sized stain resembling a whale and a smaller stain which looks like a donut. No doubt we will get a better idea about these bright/dark areas during the close-up approach next week. Right now I hope people are appreciating my artistic prescience!

Mister SETI (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on panel)

Mister SETI (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on panel)

The main thing which is currently striking to scientists (who have better things to worry about then whether methane ice looks like a whale) is how dissimilar Pluto is from its moon Charon. The two objects are closer size-wise than any other planet/moon system in the solar system, yet Charon is completely unlike Pluto in appearance and make-up. The moon, which is named after the ferryman of the underworld, is gray and nearly featureless and has no atmosphere (I should have mentioned that Pluto does have an atmosphere—at least at this phase of its strange orbit).


Hooray for New Horizons! Considering where it is and what it is currently doing, I almost find it hard to think of it as real, but it most assuredly is. Also hooray for us! We have some bad moments, but we can launch a highly functional robot out of Earth’s gravity well to the edge of the solar system! It isn’t a space colony on Venus—but it’s a start. Our arms are growing longer and our apprehension keener. I almost can’t wait for next week, yet somehow I think I’ll still manage to enjoy the weekend.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

Start getting excited: tomorrow is a big day in space adventuring!  As I write this, last minute preparations are being made on a mighty United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket sitting on a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Not only does the rocket contain a tiny cubesat with the Planetary Society Solar Sail, it is also launching the not-very-secret Air Force robot space shuttle, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (currently the world’s only known operational space plane program—each robot lander can spend years in space working on classified missions).

Just tailgatin' in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

Just tailgatin’ in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

All of this amazing stuff, along with 9 other cubesats will be riding into space via the Atlas rocket’s second stage—a next generational launch platform evocatively known as “The Centaur.” According to news sites, the launch window for this mission is Wednesday [May 20th ,2015] from 10:45 a.m. ET and 2:45 p.m.  You can watch live on webcam (but remember lots of things can push a mission back).


I would be live-blogging this extravaganza, but I have my own mission tomorrow morning: relaunching my imploded career. I will be putting on my navy suit and heading off to the temp company.  Presumably the great masters have some tedious administrative tasks for me to perform and they will not hurl me into the endless black void like little X-37B (although given today’s economy, who can really say?)

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Wish everyone luck! Hopefully there will be no Russian-style crashing and burning with either venture…

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé!

An artist's rendition of a solar sail spacecraft!

An artist’s rendition of a solar sail spacecraft!

The Planetary Society is a club which believes we should spend more resources exploring space.  I used to be a member back in the halcyon days when I could afford their annual dues, but alas, I have merely been following their exploits lately.  Mostly they are a political action committee: they use their money to hire lobbyists to remind recalcitrant leaders of the many, many benefits of space exploration. Also they showcase celebrity explorers, scientists, and astronomers (or other famous folk) in order to popularize space research to the fickle and forgetful public.


Well, that’s what they do most of the time…Sometimes they spearhead astonishing James Bond schemes of their own.  The most recent of these grand plans involved buying a converted Soviet ICBM and using it to launch a solar sail into outer space!  Sadly (yet somehow predictably) the Russians sold the Society a dodgy bum missile which failed after a minute and a half of flight and exploded over the Arctic Ocean.  This happened ten years ago, and despite the abysmal failure, I felt honored to be part of it!  When did you last cooperate on a project which would make Blowfeld jealous? (I exempt mention of my tax dollars which go to NASA—you federal scientists are awesome and I want you to keep it up, but I am talking about a private club right now).

A Delta-class Submarine Firing a SS-N-18 (of the sort that failed)

A Delta-class Submarine Firing a SS-N-18 (of the sort that failed)

Anyway I bring all of this up, because the Society has scraped together enough pocket change to try again (even without my annual $37.00 membership fee).   In five days they are launching a test flight which will pave the way for a full-fledged solar sail launch in 2016!  The Society learned certain things from the failure a decade ago, most notably “do not trust the Russians” (a lesson which is written upon the very landscapes of Eastern Europe and Central Asia to the extent that it is visible from space, but which was still somehow lost on the Planetary Society until they actually purchased an ICBM).

The Planetary Society's LightSail spacecraft, with its four sails deployed, undergoing tests in Sept. 2014. Credit: Justin Foley/The Planetary Society.

The Planetary Society’s LightSail spacecraft, with its four sails deployed, undergoing tests in Sept. 2014. Credit: Justin Foley/The Planetary Society.

This time they are buying aerospace capacity from more reputable sources—the US Air Force (for the upcoming test flight) and SpaceX for the full mission.  I mention all of this in order to direct your attention to the test flight on May 20th (EDT) which Ferrebeekeeper will definitely revisit and to also point you toward the Kickstarter funding project for next year’s full fledge flight!  If you have some money burning a hole in your pocket, you could always spend it launching a high tech sail the size of a New York apartment into space (well, maybe the actual spacecraft will be larger than that once it unfurls from its breadbox size cubesat).  Aside from buying stunning original artwork, what could be a better use of your petty cash?

Artist's conception of MESSENGER above Mercury (NASA)

Artist’s conception of MESSENGER above Mercury (NASA)

On Thursday, humankind is deliberately crashing a spaceship into another planet! We could easily be the evil aliens in someone else’s space drama. Well, at least we could be, if there were any remote chance that Mercury, the intended target of our bombardment, were a possible haven for life.  And bombardment is not really the right word: what is actually scheduled is the seemly & rational conclusion to NASA’s MESSENGER mission, a highly successful exploration of the solar system’s mysterious innermost world.  The mission has been ongoing for more than a decade (a decade of our Earth time—or nearly 40 Mercury years).

A portrait of Mercury from MESSENGER

A portrait of Mercury from MESSENGER

The 485-kilogram (1,069 pound) MESSENGER spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in August 2004. The space probe has an awkward and contrived government acronym, which is why I keep talking about it in all caps—I’m not shouting (although planetary exploration does make me very excited). The craft took some amazing pictures of Venus (a planet which always calls to me) on its way to Mercury.  Then MESSENGER flew by the small planet multiple times before entering orbit on March 18, 2011 (the first human spacecraft to do so).  Since then MESSENGER has extensively scanned and mapped the surface of Mercury—a planet which is surprisingly elusive to astronomers because of its proximity to the sun.  The mission revealed some surprising results which are leading to big new questions.

False Color Maps of Mercury (NASA)

False Color Maps of Mercury (NASA)

Mercury has a small diameter—it is actually smaller in area than some of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter—but it has substantial mass because much of it is made of heavy metals.  The face of the small world is thought to be ancient: scientists speculated that its bland pitted face might date back to the formation of the solar system, but it seems that Mercury does harbor secrets.

The mission featured a big surprise.  Messenger found surface water in the form of ice frozen inside the polar craters of Mercury.  This was not really a shock—astronomers have suspected that ice was present due to radio-telescope readings.  What was surprising was that the ice was coated with tarlike black goo. My poor roommate (who is always wandering the house pointing at films, stains, and accretions in horror) would not be surprised by a black coating on anything, however scientists were taken aback because Mercury was not thought to have any “volatile” compounds.  According to the current models of planetary formation, elements like chlorine, sulfur, potassium and sodium should have boiled away during the cataclysmic high-temperature formation of Mercury…yet there they are, like the scum in my kitchen. The scientific data from MESSENGER is likely to force a rethink of planetary formation (although frankly, considering all of the weird exoplanets that are being discovered, scientists probably need to refine their theories about planetary accretion anyway). The mission also measured subtle planetary flux which should give us a better sense of Mercury’s composition and internal workings.

The yellow patches show areas where water ice is believed to exist. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

The yellow patches show areas where water ice is believed to exist. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

All good things must end, however, and MESSENGER has run out of fuel for maneuvering.  Mission controllers have opted for an operatic exit and they are smashing the craft into the planet’s surface at 8,750 miles per hour (nearly four kilometers per second).  This should create an 18 meter (50 foot) wide crater.  Future scientists will have a known fresh disturbance to use as a benchmark for assessing the ancient craters of Mercury.  Perhaps the plume will reveal some interesting secrets as well.

MESSENGER Crashes into Mercury (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

MESSENGER Crashes into Mercury (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Unfortunately, it will be a while before we see the results of our destructive acts.  The site of impact is hidden from Earth, and we have no other spacecraft in any proximity to Mercury. A European and Japanese collaboration called BepiColombo is scheduled to launch from Earth in 2017 and arrive at Mercury in 2024.  Perhaps we will have new questions for whatever answers MESSENGER is about to divulge in its unseen but spectacular final act!

Update: Through some grotesque oversight, NASA failed to portray MESSENGER’s final moments through the magic of art. I took the liberty of providing my own interpretation above.  NASA did not return my questions about whether the spacecraft will wail in a plaintive manner as it impacts the surface–so I am forced to assume that it will.  Did I mention that Mercury has no atmosphere?  You should probably ignore that…

Artist's conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Artist’s conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Tomorrow I will write the obligatory annual post about whom we lost in 2014.  It’s always a solemn occasion which highlights the passing of many eminent figures (as well as the passing of yet another year) and raises troubling questions about what is truly important.  But before we get to the human obituaries, I wanted to write a quick eulogy for an underappreciated figure lost to little fanfare at the end of 2014.  Last month the robot explorer craft “Venus Express” was destroyed by falling into the volatile high-pressure atmosphere of our sister planet Venus (an operatic end which overshadows all but the greatest human deeds).  The Venus Express was a satellite launched by the European Space Agency in November 2005.  It reached polar orbit around Venus in April of 2006 and has been continuously sending back data since then until November 28th of 2014 when the last remaining fuel in the satellite was used to lift it into a high orbit.  Scientists planned on monitoring the space probe during its long drift down to the top of the atmosphere, but something went wrong and the satellite was thrown into a spin (which made it unable to contact Earth).  It is now presumed destroyed.


Venus Express was the first Venus mission undertaken by the ESA.  Now that the craft is gone, the human race has no functional probes or spacecraft on or around Venus until the Japanese climate orbiter “AKATSUKI” is scheduled to reach there sometime in 2015 (although there have been some problems with that mission and the planned rendezvous may be postponed…or never happen).

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

Venus’ atmosphere is believed to have once been much like that of Earth.  This is certainly not the case now! The data from Venus Express is now being analyzed in order to ascertain what happened to transform Venus into a hellish greenhouse (and strip it of its magnetosphere).  Maybe we can also analyze this data with an eye on future sky colonies as well.  Venus Express discovered hydroxyls in the atmosphere of Venus. It also discovered an ozone layer and a high cold atmospheric layer which is possibly dry ice.  It undertook a series of aerobraking experiments which could prove very relevant to future craft inserted into Venus’ atmosphere.  We need someone to analyze this data and plan those future missions! Speaking of which, why doesn’t NASA have more exploratory missions planned to this nearest planet?  We should try to put a long-term floating probe into the upper atmosphere of Venus itself!  That would be an amazing accomplishment and it would tell us more about whether floating sky colonies above Venus would even be possible. Nothing is more alluring than Venus!  Let’s honor the Venus Express by learning from it and sending some more missions there pronto!

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

Artist's conception of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon

Artist’s conception of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon

More dramatic news from the far reaches of the solar system: NASA’s probe New Horizons has awakened from its nine year hibernation and is powering up to approach Pluto!  Although it sounds like “New Horizons” is a boy band, NASA gave up on trying to launch every saccharine teenybopper act into the Kuiper belt (although that is a laudable goal): instead the probe is named after the fact that New Horizons is the first human spacecraft to explore the dwarf planet Pluto and its little moons Charon and Hydra. Launched in January of 2006, New Horizons set the record for the highest launch speed of a human-made object from Earth.  The grand piano-sized spacecraft has spent the intervening years hurtling through the darkness of space–although it has periodically come to partial wakefulness to check in with mission control and to snap some dramatic flyby photos of famous locations along its trip (like this photo montage of Jupiter and Io).  The craft also used Jupiter’s gravity well to increase its velocity.

Composite image of Jupiter and Io as photographed from New Horizons (NASA)

Composite image of Jupiter and Io as photographed from New Horizons (NASA)

Since the time the probe was launched, astronomers have discovered two new miniature moons of Pluto: Kerberus and Styx.  This means that New Horizons mission planners were forced to assess the possibility of a catastrophic collision with unseen debris or dust left over from these satellites. Computer models suggest that the likelihood of such an accident is remote, but, just in case, NASA has added two dramatic contingency plans for the mission. In one emergency plan, the probe’s satellite dish acts as a dust shield, in the other, the craft drops dangerously close to Pluto, where atmospheric drag has presumably cleared the surrounding space of particles.  These worst case plans will almost certainly not be needed, although we will learn more as New Horizons gets closer to the dwarf planet.


After flying past Pluto next July, New Horizons will hurtle into the Kuiper belt where NASA hopes the probe will rendezvous with an icy Kuiper belt object so that we can learn more about these enigmatic leftovers from the creation of the solar system.  The coming 7 months should be filled with excitement as we learn more about the Pluto system!

Artist's Impression of the Rosetta Mission

Artist’s Impression of the Rosetta Mission

Devoted readers have most likely been fretting and worrying about what happened to the ESA spacecraft Rosetta which Ferrebeekeeper wrote about back in January. In that article, I wrote that the spacecraft was meant to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in May—but that never happened. What’s the story? Did something go wrong?

Fortunately today’s space news is good: after a ten-year chase which has spanned back and forth across the solar system, the little spacecraft finally entered orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet and the spacecraft are currently about 405 million kilometers from Earth (which puts them between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter). It turns out that May was actually the date that pre-orbit maneuvers were first commenced—it has taken three months to bring the spacecraft into proper position for orbital insertion. I’m sorry I got your hopes up prematurely, but this is a good illustration of how delicately operations must be conducted when dealing with objects going 55,000 kilometers per hour (34,000 miles per hour).


 An August 3 photograph of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by space probe Rosettas OSIRIS from a distance of 285 km (Photo: ESA/Rosetta)

An August 3 photograph of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by space probe Rosettas OSIRIS from a distance of 285 km (Photo: ESA/Rosetta)

The probe has already taken some amazing pictures of the comet which has two distinct masses joined together by a narrow neck—rather like a rubber duck. We can expect even more stunning pictures of the weird icy surface of the comet as the probe edges nearer to the big dirty snowball over the next few months. The real excitement will(probably) take place in November which is when the probe Philae is tentatively scheduled to launch. Philae is a comet lander which looks curiously like a bacteriophage. It will shoot harpoons into the comet and then fasten down onto the surface to study the origins of the solar system! Get ready for a thrilling fall!

Artist's impression of the Philae landing craft, anchored by harpoons and drills to the comet's surface

Artist’s impression of the Philae landing craft, anchored by harpoons and drills to the comet’s surface

An Artist's Rendering of Rosetta Approaching the Comet (ESA)

An Artist’s Rendering of Rosetta Approaching the Comet (ESA)

Today a winter snow storm has transformed Brooklyn into a huge ice ball–at least metaphorically speaking–but the weather will surely improve.  Home will not be a ball of ice forever.  The same cannot be said for the Philae robotic lander which is currently aboard the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft (which, in turn, is currently in outer space returning to the inner solar system after 31 months in the dark cold outer solar system).  If all goes according to plan, the Rosetta spacecraft will enter a slow orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in May of 2014.  Once the space probe is in orbit around the comet, it will (eventually) fire the Philae probe onto the comet itself.  Philae is equipped with space harpoons to latch on to the comet’s surface and cling to the hurtling slushball.  Once there, the little robot lander will assay the comet with its drill and ten onboard sensors in order to learn more about the birth of the solar system–when the comet (probably) came into existence.

An artist's rendering of Philae Making a Soft Landing on the Comet this coming November (ESA)

An artist’s rendering of Philae Making a Soft Landing on the Comet this coming November (ESA)

There are many remarkable aspects to this astonishing mission (which launched a decade ago), but one of the most harrowing periods just ended.  Because the spacecraft is powered by solar panels, it did not receive sufficient energy to operate during its long sojourn through the outer solar system.  For two-and-a-half years, the mission controllers in Darmstadt, Germany have been in suspense waiting to see if Rosetta had survived being all but shut down (because of a last-minute mission rewrite, the craft was not designed for any such suspended animation).  Yesterday the spaceship woke up and radioed back to Earth!  The mission is on!  I can hardly wait for May (for multiple reasons).


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