Russia Aims for Phobos, Postpones Automatic Lunar Exploration Program

Artist's rendering of Phobos-Grunt probe. Credit: RIA Novosti

Russia may attempt to repeat its mission to Mars’ moon Phobos in 2023, Lev Zeleny, the head of the Russian Space Research Institute told RIA Novosti last Friday.

The Russian-led mission Phobos-Grunt (or Fobos-Grunt) was launched on November 9, 2011 but failed to leave near-Earth orbit, partially burnt up in the atmosphere, and its remains fell into the Pacific Ocean. “For now, the second Phobos-Grunt is being planned within the framework of the Mars-Grunt project. Maybe we will work on it with Europe.

A pilot project is under development right now. I do not rule out that the spacecraft will be manufactured by [Russian aerospace company] NPO Lavochkin,” Zeleny said. He also revealed that the start of Russia’s automatic lunar exploration program is postponed from 2016 until 2018. “They [the timelines] have been changed from 2016 to 2018. These are Luna Globe and orbiting Luna [program],” he said, adding that there should be no further delays.

“We want to implement three lunar projects this decade: Luna-25, Luna-26 and Luna-27,” he said. Zelyony said these timelines have been set in the Federal Space Program proposed by the Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). Russian scientists will focus on Moon and Mars exploration and repeat the Phobos-Grunt mission in the next decade, Zeleny said earlier. “The Moon and Mars are our priority for 2016-2025,” he said.

Speaking of Phobos mission he noted: “If everything goes according to our plan, the mission could be launched in 2023.” Phobos-Grunt was the first Russian-led interplanetary mission since 1996. It was designed to become the first spacecraft to return a macroscopic sample from an extraterrestrial body since Luna 24 in 1976. Roscosmos in partnership with the European Space Agency will be carrying out two stages of the ExoMars mission in 2016 and 2018.

In 2016, Roscosmos is planning to join Europe and Japan in the BepiColombo project. In 2017, it will orbit the Spektr-RG telescope and send a Russian rover, Luna-Globe, to the Moon in 2019, for the first time in years. A UV observatory is to be launched in 2020; an orbiting module and a dropship are scheduled to be sent to the Moon in 2012 and 2023, respectively. Credit: RIA NovostiITAR-TASS


OGLE-ing the Magellanic System: Polish Astronomers Discover Young Stellar Bridge in the Magellanic Clouds

A spatial density map of the Young Population stars in the Magellanic Bridge region. Credit: OGLE

Polish astronomers from the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE) have discovered a young stellar bridge, that forms a continuous connection between the Magellanic Clouds. This finding is based on number density maps for stellar populations found in data gathered by OGLE. This is the most extensive optical survey of this region up to date. “We find that the young population is present mainly in the western half of the Magellanic Bridge area (MBR), which, together with the newly discovered young population in the eastern Bridge, form a continuous stream of stars connecting both galaxies along,” the researchers write in a paper published on Oct. 1

. “The young population distribution is clumped, with one of the major densities close to the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), and the other, fairly isolated and located approximately midway between the Clouds, which we call the OGLE island.” The Magellanic Clouds comprise of two galaxies: the Large (LMC) and the Small Magellanic Cloud and are the closest to the Milky Way pair of interacting galaxies. The Clouds have always been of special interest to astronomers and they continue to play a significant role in our understanding of the Universe.

For the observations, the team used the 1.3 m Warsaw telescope located at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile (operated by the Carnegie Institution for Science) equipped with the 256 Megapixel 32-chip mosaic camera. The OGLE project started regular observations in 1992 as one of the first generation microlensing projects dedicated to detecting and characterizing microlensing events. During its over 20 year history OGLE gradually evolved and conducted numerous projects that contributed to many fields of modern astrophysics. The current, fourth phase of the OGLE survey (OGLE-IV) started in March 2010 and the Galactic bulge and disk, the Magellanic Clouds, and the Magellanic Bridge, including vast areas around them, are the primary observing targets for this phase.

In the paper, OGLE scientists present density maps of stellar populations in the entire Magellanic Bridge region, thanks to the unprecedented OGLE-IV coverage. The maps show, for the first time, the detailed extent of these populations, which should provide valuable input information for models of past Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds interactions. “This unique dataset allowed us to construct detailed number density maps for three key stellar populations: the young stars, and the intermediate-age and old populations, represented by the red clump and the red giant branch stars,” the researchers reveal.

The density map confirms that the majority of young stars are found in the western part of the classical Bridge, but what is more important, shows that the young population is also present in the eastern part of the classical Bridge region, which was not observed before. “This means that there is a continuous stream of young stars connecting the two galaxies,” the team concludes. Presented number density maps form a first uniform dataset on stellar populations in the area between the Magellanic Clouds, much larger than the classical Magellanic Bridge.

This is a unique database that may be used for testing models and simulations of past interaction between the Magellanic Clouds and the Milky Way. Data used to make these density maps are available in an electronic form from the OGLE Internet archivehttp://ogle.astrouw.edu.pl.


Four Candidate Landing Sites Considered for 2018 ExoMars Mission

Four possible landing sites are being considered for the ExoMars 2018 mission. The sites – Mawrth Vallis, Oxia Planum, Hypanis Vallis and Aram Dorsum – are indicated in this context map. All four are close to the equator. Credit: ESA/Roscosmos/LSSWG

Four possible landing sites are being considered for the ExoMars mission in 2018. Its rover will search for evidence of martian life, past or present. ExoMars is a joint two-mission endeavour between ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency. The Trace Gas Orbiter and an entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, Schiaparelli, will be launched in January 2016, arriving at Mars nine months later. The Rover and Surface Platform will depart in May 2018, with touchdown on Mars in January 2019. The search for a suitable landing site for the second mission began in December 2013, when the science community was asked to propose candidates.

The eight proposals were considered during a workshop held by the Landing Site Selection Working Group in April. By the end of the workshop, there were four clear front-runners. Following additional review by an ESA-appointed panel, the four sites have now been formally recommended for further detailed analysis. The sites – Mawrth Vallis, Oxia Planum, Hypanis Vallis and Aram Dorsum – are all located relatively close to the equator.

“The present-day surface of Mars is a hostile place for living organisms, but primitive life may have gained a foothold when the climate was warmer and wetter, between 3.5 billion and 4 billion years ago,” says Jorge Vago, ESA’s ExoMars project scientist. “Therefore, our landing site should be in an area with ancient rocks where liquid water was once abundant. Our initial assessment clearly identified four landing sites that are best suited to the mission’s scientific goals.”

The area around Mawrth Vallis and nearby Oxia Planum contains one of the largest exposures of rocks on Mars that are older than 3.8 billion years and clay-rich, indicating that water once played a role here. Mawrth Vallis lies on the boundary between the highlands and lowlands and is one of the oldest outflow channels on Mars.

The exposed rocks at both Mawrth Vallis and Oxia Planum have varied compositions, indicating a variety of deposition and wetting environments. In addition, the material of interest has been exposed by erosion only within the last few hundred million years, meaning the rocks are still well preserved against damage from the planet’s harsh radiation and oxidation environment.

By contrast, Hypanis Vallis lies on an exhumed fluvial fan, thought to be the remnant of an ancient river delta at the end of a major valley network. Distinct layers of fine-grained sedimentary rocks provide access to material deposited about 3.45 billion years ago. Finally, the Aram Dorsum site receives its name from the eponymous channel, curving from northeast to west across the location. The sedimentary rocks around the channel are thought to be alluvial sediments deposited much like those around Earth’s River Nile.

This region experienced both sustained water activity followed by burial, providing protection from radiation and oxidation for most of Mars’ geological history, also making this a site with strong potential for finding preserved biosignatures. “While all four sites are clearly interesting scientifically, they must also allow for the operational and engineering requirements for safe landing and roving on the surface,” adds Jorge.

“Technical constraints are satisfied to different degrees in each of these locations and, although our preliminary evaluation indicates that Oxia Planum has fewer problems compared to the other sites, verification is still on going.” The next stage of analysis will include simulations to predict the probability of landing success based on the entry profile, atmospheric and terrain properties at each of the candidate sites. The aim is to complete the certification of at least one site by the second half of 2016, with a final decision on the landing site for the ExoMars 2018 rover to be taken sometime in 2017. Credit: ESA


Proton Rocket Returns to Flight with Successful Launch of a Russian Satellite into Orbit

Proton with Olymp satellite lifts off in early hours of September 28, 2014. Credit: Roscosmos

The Proton-M carrier rocket, which lifted off from Baikonur space launch facility in Kazakhstan early on Sunday, has put the Briz-M rocket booster and the Russian relay satellite Luch in the interim orbit, the press service of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) reported. The rocket lifted off as scheduled on Sept. 28, 2014, at 00:23 Moscow Time (4:23 p.m. EDT on Sept. 27). The launch vehicle is carrying a classified payload known as Olymp (“Olympus”) as well as Luch (“Beam”), which belongs to the Russian Ministry of Defense. “The Russian satellite is expected to enter the final calculated orbit at 09:26 Moscow time (on Sunday),” the press service said.

The Luch spacecraft is another satellite of the Luch Multifunctional Relay System which is being developed under the 2006-2015 Russian federal space programme. The Luch relay system is intended to provide the Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS); low-orbiting space devices; boosters and upper stages with communication with ground-based facilities. The previous Luch spacecraft – Luch-5B – was successfully put in orbit on April 28 this year.

Sunday’s mission was previously scheduled to lift off at the end of May 2014 and, following the May 16 accident, it was initially postponed to July 8. On August 26, Roscosmos announced that specialists from GKNPTs Khrunichev had been installing thermal protection layers on the Briz-M stage at Site 92-50 in Baikonur, while the center’s personnel was configuring launch pad at Site 81 for the upcoming mission. The statement also said that the Luch spacecraft was developed at ISS Reshetnev.

On Sept. 4, Roscosmos reported that the launch vehicle, the upper stage, the payload fairing and the spacecraft had undergone autonomous checks and were all ready for integration. The assembly was completed by September 19. Two days later, a fully assembled vehicle was moved to a fueling station for loading the upper stage with propellant and pressurized gases. The launch vehicle was then rolled out to the launch pad No. 24 at Site 81on September 23.

Several hours before an expected liftoff, Roscosmos announced that State Commission overseeing the launch had given green light to the fueling of the vehicle with propellants. At the same time, the launch contractor removed information about the scheduled time of the launch from its web site and never made public a live broadcast of the liftoff.

The Proton-M boost carrying the Express-AM4P communication satellite burnt in dense layers of the atmosphere on May 16. The experts investigating the accident said it was caused by disintegration of a bearing assembly in the turbo pump of the third-stage engine. Credit: ITAR-TASSrussianspaceweb.com


Roscosmos Boss Talks New Super-Heavy Booster Rocket, Vostochny Cosmodrome and Cooperation with U.S.

Oleg Ostapenko, General Director of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), makes remarks during the State Commission meeting to approve the Soyuz launch of Expedition 41 to the International Space Station, Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

Russia’s Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) will decide on a leading designer of a super-heavy booster rocket till the end of the year, Roscosmos head Oleg Ostapenko said on Friday. A competition for the booster rocket has not been held yet, he said. “We’ll hold a conciliatory meeting shortly to decide what [of the super-heavy booster] should look like, where the work will be done and who is to lead the way,” he said. Three leading Russian enterprises – the Progress design bureau, the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation, and the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre – are now designing and developing the super-heavy booster. Roscosmos chief also discussed future launches from Vostochny cosmodrome and cooperation with U.S.

Ostapenko revealed that the construction of the launch site for the newest Angara carrier rocket at the Vostochny spaceport in the Russian Far East will begin before the end of this year. “This will be the Angara rocket. Everything has been spelled out. We’re working on that basis,” he said. “We will take the first steps in the organization of the work for the creation of the Angara launch site this year,” Ostapenko said, adding that he would pay a working visit to the new spaceport at the beginning of October. “We will take the final decision on site.”

Roscosmos head said that other carrier boosters would be launched from the Vostochny space facility as well. “We don’t rule out that more powerful boosters will be launched.” Media reports said earlier that the creation of a super-heavy missile system would be included in the federal space program for 2016-2025. Roscosmos asked to provide over 200 billion rubles (over $5 billion) to create such system at the Vostochny space facility.

According to earlier reports, the first manned launch from Vostrochny Cosmodrome is scheduled for 2018. Ostapenko also told reporters that NASA is ready to increase the number of joint space experiments with Russia. “Today our American colleagues have offered to widen cooperation regarding the joint experiments in space”, he said, adding that most of the experiments on the International Space Station (ISS) during the forthcoming year will be conducted with close participation of Russian and American space crews.

Early April, 2014 NASA announced suspending space cooperation with Russia, except for ISS projects, due to the political crisis in Ukraine; however, by the end of the month NASA’s head personally assured his Russian counterpart that no space projects would be suspended and Russia-US space ties remain strong enough.

Speaking about Yelena Serova, the first Russian woman to crew the ISS in the past 20 years, Ostapenko announced that he is not ruling out that a crew consisting of women could be sent to the ISS in the future. “I hope that women will join the crew, moreover, we are not limiting strictly whether one woman in six months or one in ten years should fly. We make an assessment due to the person’s professionalism and ambition,” he said. “If there is a big rush in women willing to fly to space, we will support this idea.” Credit: ITAR-TASS


UK to Build Unique Intergalactic GPS Instrument to Map the Stars

Artist's impression of the MOONS instrument. Credit: STFC

A €9M contract was announced Friday for UK-based engineers and designers to build a unique and powerful instrument that aims to tackle some of the most compelling astronomical puzzles – such as how stars and galaxies form and evolve, and probing the structure of our own Milky Way. A project team from the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh will lead this international project to develop and build MOONS for the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in northern Chile, already the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical facility.

MOONS (Multi-Object Optical and Near-infrared Spectrograph) will allow astronomers to see obscured areas in the Milky Way at a distance of around 40,000 light years away, and enable them to create a 3D map of our galaxy. This is difficult to do as the Earth is in the middle of the Milky Way’s disc, so the process is like trying to map a forest of densely-packed trees from the inside. Director of the UK ATC, Professor Gillian Wright, said “The team at UK ATC in Scotland have an opportunity with this project to enable all of us to understand why the Milky Way looks the way it does. This instrument will act as an intergalactic GPS to help us to navigate through the billions of stars in our galaxy and create a comprehensive map of its structure.”

Conceived at the UK ATC – part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) – MOONS is scheduled to become operational by 2019. Building such an ambitious and powerful new device – which will be about the size of a transit van – will take around 200 staff-years of effort, with the hardware alone costing €9M. The full project will cost around €23M. The UK ATC will lead the Project Office managing the multinational consortium that will construct MOONS, and will also play a vital design role for key components and ensure the project’s benefits extend throughout UK industry.

Like any spectrograph, MOONS will use the colour of light emitted by objects to reveal their chemical composition, mass, speed and other properties. Breaking new ground by simultaneously observing 1000 objects using fibre-optic cables to feed their visible and infrared light into the instrument, it will survey large samples of objects far faster than any existing instrument and conduct surveys that would be virtually impossible using today’s technologies. Not surprisingly, the design will pose extraordinary technical demands. For example, each of the 1000-plus fibres will have to move into position very quickly, with great accuracy and without colliding with each other.

In collaboration with the University of Cambridge and other UK universities, the UK ATC’s world-leading expertise in fields such as miniaturised mechanics and precision optics will be harnessed on key aspects of the project. The UK ATC will develop the most innovative component, the individual motorised systems allowing each fibre to move rapidly into position; it will also develop the cryostat system (used to cool MOONS down to -170°C) vital to enabling the infrared observations needed to penetrate galactic and intergalactic dust clouds. The University of Cambridge will develop complex cameras capable of meeting the instrument’s demanding performance requirements.

Partnerships with a range of UK equipment suppliers will also contribute across the project, helping the UK to further strengthen its cutting-edge scientific capabilities in the relevant fields. Once MOONS is up and running, the international consortium will receive 300 nights of observations using the instrument. In particular, this will benefit two ground-breaking projects: one to produce an unprecedented sophisticated survey of the centre of the Milky Way; the other to look far back in time at ultra-distant galaxies to uncover the secrets of their early evolution.

Dr Michele Cirasuolo of the UK ATC, Principal Investigator on the project, says: “MOONS is a unique instrument able to pioneer a wide range of galactic, extragalactic and cosmological studies and provide crucial follow-up for major facilities such as Gaia, the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA), Euclid and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). I am hugely proud of the dedication and skill demonstrated over the project’s selection stages by our engineers and scientists at the UK ATC and across the consortium. We look forward to building this exceptional piece of technology and paving the way for many discoveries.”

Professor Roberto Maiolino from the University of Cambridge, Project Scientist for MOONS, says: “MOONS will vastly expand our knowledge of the mechanisms responsible for galaxy evolution across the life of the Universe. It will be possible to characterise the properties of millions of distant galaxies – for instance, by identifying the signatures of ongoing star formation and black hole accretion – and how galaxies’ evolution depends on their large-scale environment. Cambridge will play an essential role designing and assembling key optical subsystems, as well as in defining the science programme.” Credit: stfc.ac.uk


Putin Creates Commission on Vostochny Cosmodrome Construction

Vladimir Putin reviews the plan for the Vostochny spaceport. Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday signed a resolution to create a commission for the construction of Vostochny Cosmodrome. The document was placed on the official legal information portal. Russian Vice-Premier Dmitry Rogozin is appointed as chairman of the commission. Putin instructed the commission to coordinate actions between bodies of state power at different levels and organizations, to establish control over efficiency of budget expenditure and to keep to schedule for putting into operation key facilities of the Vostochny Space Launch Center.

The commission consists of 18 people: head of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) Oleg Ostapenko, presidential aide Andrei Belousov, First Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Buksman, head of the Federal Agency for State Property Management (Rosimushchestvo) Olga Dergunova and others. In early September Putin visited the Vostochny Cosmodrome construction site and said that “all the deadlines must be met and any delay or disruption in funding must be avoided”.

He also warned that “there must be no unjustified increases” in expenditures. “The implementation of this project should confirm the high scientific and technological status of Russia,” he said. In his opinion, the new spaceport should become “yet another strongpoint for the development of our Far East.” Vostochny should become operational in 2015 and start sending manned missions in 2018. The cosmodrome is intended for launching automatic and piloted space missions under national, international and commercial programs. Its construction started in 2012 and the first launch is expected to be carried out in by 2015 on board Soyuz-2 light carrier rockets. By 2018, it will be ready to launch heavy Angara-5A rockets. The cosmodrome will also have infrastructure for future piloted missions.

More than 400 social, engineering and transport infrastructure facilities, 115 km of roads and 125 km of railroads will be built at the cosmodrome. Experts say that the commissioning of the cosmodrome will allow Russia to carry out independent and more effective space activities, launch more space vehicles, reduce environmental impact, facilitate economic development of the region, create new jobs in related industries, and make the region more attractive to investors. Credit: ITAR-TASS


 ESA’s Bug-Eyed Telescope to Spot Risky Asteroids

A new, European telescope nicknamed ‘fly-eye’ splits the image into 16 smaller subimages to expand the field of view, similar to the technique exploited by a fly’s compound eye. Such fly-eyed survey telescopes provide a very large field of view: 6.7° x 6.7° or about 45 square degrees. 6.7° is about 13 times the diameter of the Moon as seen from the Earth (roughly 0.5 degrees). Credit: ESA/Compagnia Generale dello Spazio CGS

Spotting Earth-threatening asteroids is tough partly because the sky is so big. But insects offer an answer, since they figured out long ago how to look in many directions at once. As part of the global effort to hunt out risky celestial objects such as asteroids and comets, ESA is developing an automated telescope for nightly sky surveys. This telescope is the first in a future network that would completely scan the sky and automatically identify possible new near-Earth objects, or NEOs, for follow up and later checking by human researchers. But a web of traditional telescopes would be complex and expensive because of the number required. Adding to the problem, the system must be able to discover objects many times fainter than the naked eye can perceive. While no network can spot all potentially hazardous objects, under favourable conditions it should detect everything down to about 40 m in diameter at least three weeks before impact.

The answer is a new, European telescope nicknamed ‘fly-eye’ that splits the image into 16 smaller subimages to expand the field of view, similar to the technique exploited by a fly’s compound eye.The design is modular, and allows for mass and cheaper production and lower maintenance costs. It will be used to build the prototype, to be fielded by ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme early next year.“This novel technology is key to the future NEO survey network,” says Gian Maria Pinna of the SSA office.These fly-eyed survey telescopes offer performance equivalent to a 1 m-diameter telescope, and provide a very large field of view: 6.7° x 6.7° or about 45 square degrees; 6.7° is about 13 times the diameter of the Moon as seen from the Earth.

“The new telescopes would provide the resolution necessary to determine the orbits of any detected objects,” says Gian Maria.“If the prototype confirms the expected performance, it will pave the way to full procurement and deployment of the operational network of telescopes.”This summer, ESA signed a contract for about €1 million with a consortium led by CGS S.p.A (Italy), comprising Creotech Instruments S.A. (Poland), SC EnviroScopY SRL (Romania) and Pro Optica S.A. (Romania) for the detailed design of the advanced telescope.It is expected that the detailed design will be followed by several additional contracts with European companies valued at up to €10 million for building and deploying the first survey prototype telescope.“The development of the first optical sensor specific to ESA’s NEO search and discovery activities is a fundamental step toward Europe’s contribution to safeguarding our planet from possible collisions by dangerous objects,” notes Nicolas Bobrinsky, Head of the SSA Programme. Credit: ESA


French NenuFAR Telescope Granted SKA Pathfinder Status

Deer near the LOFAR antennas. Credit: astron.nl

NenuFAR, which stands for New Extension in Nançay Upgrading LOFAR, is a new low-frequency radio telescope under construction at the Nançay Observatory near Orleans to extend the existing international LOFAR radio telescope, an array of low frequency antennas spread across eight European countries and centred in the Netherlands. “With this announcement, NenuFAR is recognised as an instrument concept paving the way for the new science to be done with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)”, said Gilles Theureau, Director of the Nançay Observatory. “It’s excellent news for the project, as well as for the Nançay Observatory.”

The SKA officially has three precursor telescopes, MeerKAT, ASKAP and MWA. Located at SKA sites in South Africa and Western Australia, these precursors are and will be carrying out scientific studies related to future SKA activities, as well as helping the development and testing of new crucial SKA technologies. Unlike precursors, pathfinder telescopes and systems are dotted around the globe. They include the famous Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which starred in the James Bond movie “Goldeneye”, the LOFAR low frequency array, which is based in Europe, and the JVLA, in North America, which was famously seen in the hit movie “Contact”, amongst others. They are also engaged in SKA-related technology and science studies. A full list is available here.

NenuFAR will not only be an extension of LOFAR but also a stand-alone instrument. As an SKA pathfinder, the feedback from the design, construction and operation of NenuFAR will be used by the SKA Organisation to facilitate the development of the SKA. “NenuFAR is a promising instrument and the SKA’s low frequency array will certainly benefit from the development and lessons learnt on this project”, said Prof. Philip Diamond, Director General of the SKA Organisation. “We are happy to support the French community’s efforts and look forward to working more closely with our colleagues in France in the near future.”

“The decision by the SKA Organisation to grant NenuFAR the official status of SKA Pathfinder is an important signal for the French community, recognising our expertise in radioastronomy,” added Denis Mourard, Deputy Director for Science of the Institut National des Sciences de l’Univers of CNRS. “This status as SKA Pathfinder will further increase our motivation and efficiency to complete the construction of NenuFAR Phase 1 as scheduled, and to prepare the next phases, thereby contributing to the development of SKA,” said Claude Catala, President of the Observatoire de Paris. Credit: skatelescope.org

Putin Pledges $1.5 Billion for Completion of Vostochny Cosmodrome, OKs Plans for Creating Super-Heavy Rockets

Vladimir Putin, Oleg Ostapenko and Dmitry Rogozin inspecting Vostochny Cosmodrome construction site. Credit: Dmitry Rogozin/Facebook

50 billion roubles ($1.5 billion) will be invested in the construction of the Vostochny space site in the Amur Region in 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin told an on-site conference devoted to the space port’s development prospects. “We are investing huge funds into its construction. Since 2011 more than 100 billion roubles has been spent for the purpose and another 50 billion roubles are to be disbursed next year,” he said. Putin also stressed that next year Vostochny should be ready to launch any unmanned spacecraft with the medium class rocket Soyuz-2 and to join manned space programs in 2018. He added that in the longer term the space spot’s capabilities would be built up for launching heavy and super-heavy rockets and for exploring the Moon, Mars and other celestial bodies.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin acknowledged that Russia’s space agency Roscosmos’ plans to begin the work on a super-heavy rocket were voiced at the presidential level for the first time. He said that on all previous occasions there were mostly informal conversations and discussions. “In principle, one can say today that Putin gave a go-ahead to the beginning of this work,” Rogozin said.

The construction of Vostochny is taking place in stages. The first stage — land surveying — was completed in 2010, while phase two — the construction of launch pads for the Soyuz-2 and Angara rockets — is nearing completion. The final construction stage, which focuses on launch facilities for a super-heavy booster rocket, is to take place between 2016 and 2018. But Putin said the project is 30 to 55 days behind schedule, and warned that the cosmodrome must be ready to facilitate its first launches next year. Moreover, the 6,000-strong workforce needs to be doubled, he said.

Putin called for strict compliance with all deadlines and construction phases. “It is essential to rule out any delays and disruptions in its financing. Also, financing must remain under strict control. There should be no groundless overspending,” he said. To ensure that there are no additional delays, Putin on Tuesday gave Rogozin direct control over the construction project, taking over from Oleg Ostapenko, head of the Roscosmos. Roscosmos chief said that the number of launch pads for the heavy space rocket Angara may be reduced from the original four to two and the funds saved in that way invested in creating a new super-heavy rocket. He addressed this proposal to President Vladimir Putin while inspecting the Vostochny construction site.

“We are building two launch pads for Angara here and another two in Plesetsk. I believe that four launch pads for the heavy rocket are not very rational. Two launch pads will be enough – one in Plesetsk and another here,” Ostapenko said. “The saved funds may be invested into the super-heavy rocket,” he said, adding that the image of a future rocket was already being worked on and production work might be launched next year. The corresponding calculations and feasibility studies would be presented to the president later.

Rogozin supported the Roscosmos chief’s proposal. “Roscosmos’s ideas of reducing the number of launch pads might let us use some money to start building a launch pad for a super heavy rocket,” Rogozin admitted. He believes that it must be done without delay, because finalizing the project, securing its approval by the president and government and building the rocket itself would take a while. “We shall be obliged to come close to creating this class of rockets immediately after 2020,” Rogozin said. “This would confirm Russia’s dominating role in matters related to the creation of a heavy class rocket and a return all the very best that there was in Soviet society. While discussing Vostochny space site-related issues, the president in fact supported this idea related with the federal space program.”

Vostochny site is important from a national security standpoint, as it would give Russia its own base from which to launch heavier rockets that can be used to send military satellites into orbit. Russia currently leases the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for $115 million a year for such launches, and achieving independence in this sphere appears to justify putting more strain on an economy hit hard by sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. Credit: themoscowtimes.comITAR-TASS


European Mars Conference 2014: Vision for Mars Rovers

Typical “real colour” image of the Martian surface (left) and VNIR “false colour” visualisation (right). Credit: Yosef Akhtman/EPFL

Seeing is believing. Our great visions of space exploration require also a trustable vision system. Curiosity rover snapping dozens of pictures daily sees the Red Planet different than the eye.

Needless to say, human vision is highly adapted to the specific conditions here on Earth. “The exploration of Mars will require radically different qualities of the vision system because of both the Mars atmospheric properties and the range of things that this vision system will need to be able to see.” Yosef Akhtman of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) told astrowatch.net.

“In particular using an RGB camera, which was developed to mimic human vision on Earth is a bit naive and far from optimum.” Akhtman will give a speech on Sept. 7 regarding adaptive vision system for extraterrestrial exploration at the European Mars Conference (EMC) that will take place in Podzamcze, Poland.

Akhtman is the founder and the Chief Executive Officer of VISNX – an innovative Swiss start-up company in the field of optical sensing. He is the author of several inventions, one manuscript and more than forty scientific papers, spanning the subjects of information theory, mobile robotics and remote environmental sensing.

Akhtman points out that vision, and the sensation of color in particular, is a strictly subjective, contextual capability that has evolved over billions of year to serve the needs of the various species in a very effective, but highly specialized manner.

Bees have their vision system optimized for navigation and orientation around flowers. The vision of many mammals is optimized for the sensing of motion at the expense of the less resolved color information. Birds see more distinctive colors than humans, which is probably optimized for their airborne lifestyle. Yet another species like the mantis shrimp perceive up to twelve distinctive spectral bands.

Many of today’s imaging technologies are designed to replicate the capabilities of the human vision. The goal of these systems is to record color information in a way that would facilitate faithful reproduction ­ “real color” that would resemble the original object when observed by humans.

“We don’t yet know what is it exactly that we will need to look for on Mars and therefore we cannot develop an effective static vision system in advance. That is the reason that the adaptive approach that we are developing at VISNX has so much potential in my view.”

Akhtman said. “We have developed a fundamentally different vision system that can be dynamically reconfigured to collect imaging data that is optimized for the specific environment. In particular, the spectral characteristics of the proposed imaging system may be adjusted in post processing to maximize the informational content of data collected.”

He added that the proposed vision system opens new and compelling possibilities for optical sensing both on Earth and other planets with the exploration of Mars being the clear and straightforward application. Along with the EMC, an international Mars rover contest will be held – the European Rover Challenge. The challenge involving analogues of Mars rovers is a competition for teams of students and recent graduates of higher education institutions, who, with the help of their faculty, try to first design and build and then field the best rover.

The core of the challenge are four practical tasks: a science task involving obtaining and analyzing samples, a “blind” navigation task, in which the team will have to guide the rover to a certain destination using just GPS coordinates and no camera input, and two engineering tasks that will require using and repairing equipment. During all of the tasks, the teams will have to control their rovers without seeing them directly.

Asked about what will be the most important to win the competition, Akhtman, who was the main developer of the control software for the Southampton Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, which took the 1st place at the SAUC-E competition in 2007 (sauc-europe.org), said: “I think flexibility and robustness of both hardware and software is very important.

I am a big believer of redundant, asynchronous control architecture. These days you have wonderful platforms, such as ROS (ros.org) that are almost plug-n-play, so you don’t need to develop such software from scratch the way we did in 2007.

From my experience in these types of challenges, it is very common for the entire system to fail because of an expected failure of a small, but critical component. The challenge for the developers is to think through and eliminate any potential weak links and failure points.”

ESA Celebrates 50 Years at the European Space Operations Centre

VIPs celebrate 50 years of European space cooperation at ESOC. Credit: ESA/J. Mai

In the presence of media, invited dignitaries, former astronauts, ESA’s Director General and colleagues past and present, the workforce at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, celebrated 50 years of European cooperation in space on Thursday. In 1964, the Conventions of ELDO (launchers) and ESRO (science and later applications) entered into force. A decade later, a single European Space Agency was established, taking over from these two organisations.

For 50 years, ESA and its precursor organisations together with partners in the 20 Member States, space industry and the scientific community have served European cooperation and innovation in space based on competence, cooperation, continuity and integration. At ESOC Thursday, the Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations, Thomas Reiter, welcomed ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain to a gala programme celebrating ESA past, present and future.

“Through our dedicated employees and with concrete examples, our goal today was to emphasise the strategic dimension of space as a cross-sector driver for innovation and an essential part of our interconnected society of the future,” said Thomas Reiter, who is also Head of the ESOC Establishment. “The event highlighted the significance of cooperation between 20 ESA Member States as well as the numerous space innovations and spin-offs.”

In his address, the Director General spoke about Europe’s 50 years of achievements in space, and looked forward to continued success in the next 50 years. “I am proud to be here today at ESOC, where for decades Europe has cooperated in the development of spacecraft operations expertise,” said Director General Dordain. “The experts here are among Europe’s best and most capable across satellite control, ground station technology and ground systems engineering. If ESOC cannot do it, nobody can do it.”

Distinguished keynote speakers included Brigitte Zypries, Parliamentary State Secretary and German Aerospace Coordinator; Tarek Al-Wazir, Deputy Hesse Minister-President and Hesse Minister of Economics; Jan Wörner, Chair of the Executive Board of DLR; Jochen Partsch, Lord Mayor of Darmstadt; and, Silvia Castañer, Director of Administration at Eumetsat. The programme included presentations and video greetings from current and former staff, moderated panel discussions on technology trends and the future of space flight, videoconferences with ESA’s Columbus and ATV control centres near Munich and Toulouse, and a talk with the CEO of cesah, the managing partner of ESA’s Business Incubation Centre (BIC) in Darmstadt.

The ESOC Chorus and ESOC Theatre Group were also on stage; the two organisations have been part of the international community in Darmstadt for over 25 years. ESOC’s own house band performed a wrap-up medley of classic space-themed hits. Teams at ESA’s operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany, comprise engineers, scientists, mathematicians and IT specialists from across Europe working on Earth observation, solar, planetary and astronomy missions. They are responsible for operating ESA satellites and development of the corresponding ground segment infrastructure and for the development, operation and maintenance of the Agency’s worldwide Estrack ground station network.

Since September 1967, ESOC has operated 70 ESA satellites and has supported numerous missions of other national and international organisations. Its highly developed infrastructure, technologies and specialised teams enable the Centre to simultaneously operate over a dozen spacecraft, plus conduct critical launch and early orbit activities for ESA and other agencies. ESOC is a globally recognised competence centre for space debris, ground system engineering, software development and satellite navigation. Credit: ESA

Developing Low Cost Tools for Astronomy in India

As a subject that acquaints us with the vast universe and our place in it, any mention of Astronomy draws the attention of many. It is also good to attract students towards Science.

And its  hence is a very useful tool for teachers. Yet, as something to practice for oneself, hardly anything beyond watching the moon and stars can be done without needing a telescope. This is a hurdle that Astronomy communicators and teachers come across when they want to share all these objects and beautiful sights that they talk about in their presentations etc. These optics and other resources are often costly and not easy to come by.

Many colleges too have started courses in Astronomy connected to a Physics syllabus. The instruments bought for the practical sessions are however seldom used due to their high cost and a demand for time consuming maintenance. This is a serious problem that can be addressed by the availability of cheaper, DIY alternatives that people could relate to. With these people could also concentrate more on the observations and the Science rather than whether they are going to break the instrument.

One case to mention, in the perspective of India, is a small DIY telescope. There a many examples available to buy as kits, like the wonderful Galileoscope. Built on the same idea (and hence a similar name – (Galileoscope++), it however aimed to get people to know how to make a telescope in a programme carried out India by the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy & Astrophysics(IUCAA) and many associated Universities. This is a telescope made using a 2 inch achromat objective lens, an eyepiece and a lot of small parts that are sourced from the local plumbing raw materials supplier. Each part in this, that can be “broken” (except the lenses, which people have to learn to respect anyway), is easily replaceable, even by a child! These cost ~ US$ 45, with the lens covering ¾ of the cost and made locally in India too. The two plus-points are that it uses an achromatic lens and that at this cost it also includes an Alt-Az mount! Source: Astronomers Without Borders

ESA Astronaut Drives Car-Sized Rover from Space

Inside the Rover communications control room at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: ESA

Looking down from orbit, ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst steered ESA’s Eurobot rover through a series of intricate manoeuvres on the ground Thursday, demonstrating a new space network.

One that could connect astronauts to vehicles on alien worlds. During an intense 90-minute live link on 7 August, Alex used a dedicated controller laptop on the International Space Station to operate Eurobot, relying on video and data feedback to feed commands from 400 km up, orbiting at 28 000 km/h.

The link was provided by a new network that stores commands when signals are interrupted if direct line of sight with Earth or the surface unit is lost, forwarding them once contact is re-established. In the future, controlling robots on Mars or the Moon will require a sort of ‘space Internet’ to send telecommands and receive data. Such networks must also accommodate signal delays across vast distances, considering that astronauts and rovers on Mars will have to be linked with mission controllers on Earth.

Thursday’s demonstration was the second in a series of experiments under the Meteron project, following the 2012 test by NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who used an initial version of the network by steering a model rover at ESA’s ESOC operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany. “This was the first time Eurobot was controlled from space as part of an experiment to validate communication and operations technologies that will ultimately be used for future human exploration missions,” noted Kim Nergaard, head of Advanced Mission Concepts at ESOC.

During the session, which started at 16:35 GMT (18:35 CEST), Alexander Gerst commanded Eurobot to move and take pictures based on telemetry and pictures streaming to the Station from the rover. Eurobot was inching around a test facility at ESA’s ESTEC technology centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, while ‘ground control’ was at ESOC and the disruption-tolerant network was routed via Belgium’s Station User Support and Operations Centre in Brussels, and NASA.

Simulations to prepare for yesterday’s link included live connections between Darmstadt, Noordwijk and Brussels to the Space Station throughout July. “Today’s result is even better than the simulations we conducted,” said Daniela Taubert, Meteron’s operations coordinator. “The whole experiment ran extremely smoothly. Alex was faster and more efficient that we had expected.” William Carey, ESA’s Meteron project engineer, agreed: “It is great to have a hands-on test of part of ESA’s long-term strategy to send humans and robots to explore our Solar System.”

Future space exploration will most likely involve sending robotic explorers to check out alien surfaces before landing humans. To prepare for this, ESA is running the Meteron human–robot exploration programme: Multi-Purpose End-To-End Robotic Operations Network. Credit: ESA


Peter H says:

Yuri’s 50th anniversary came and went, and still the space excitement grows. A graphic novel has been created to celebrate the successful first manned spaceflight. Yuri’s Day illustrates the amazing stories of early rocket development through to the space race culminating in Gagarin’s successful manned space flight. Includes the raw detail – from the Chief Designer Korolev’s incarceration in a Stalin re-education (gulag) camp to the incredible space training methods employed by the Soviets. This is an accurate visual take on some incredible stories – an educational honouring of the past.

Printed in both paperback and hardcopy, English and Russian. Even an iPad App with interactive Russian TV set!

Sample pages can be viewed here: http://www.yuri-gagarin.com/about/