Category Archives: Europe

On Time, On Target? The Rosetta Mission

The next few hours or so will be interesting and hopefully history-making.  The European Space Agency (ESA) team has come so far with the Rosetta mission. If you don’t know what Rosetta is, in short: the Europeans have sent a spacecraft, Rosetta, to successfully intercept a comet over 400,000,000 km (about 250,000,000 miles) from Earth, and plan to land a very small probe, named Philae, on it (you can read some detail about the probe, here).

I hope their planning comes to full, successful, fruition. On 12 Nov, at 1602 UTC, the Philae lander will have hopefully made contact with Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, and securely harpooned itself to the comet’s surface. The lander will have already detached from the Rosetta spacecraft about 7 hours (around 0903 UTC) earlier and slowly made its way to the comet during that time.

So, at the risk of putting up a few more videos up on this site for a couple days in a row now, here’s one that ESA put out about two weeks ago. It’s a bit weird, kind of cool, and definitely highlights ESA’s marketing budget. It’s fun, nonetheless, and hopefully you haven’t seen it yet. It might be inspirational:

Then, if you want to watch the Rosetta operations team as they command and wait to see what happens with Philae and Rosetta as it’s all happening, go to this link:

There will be a lot of hurrying up and waiting, since radio communications take awhile between spacecraft and ground stations. If you can’t watch the video, but still want to follow along with the actions of the folks at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), try following them on Twitter:

I wish them the best of luck–although I know they’ve worked hard enough to not just rely on that! As space operators everywhere do.


DIY Space: Do You Have Room in Your Life for PocketSpacecraft?

First Earth, then the moon, and finally, the Universe! Are you thinking what I’m thinking Pinky? Image from

“If at first you don’t succeed…”–this is the spirit that is guiding the people conducting the activities at  They originally tried to get their “Mission to the Moon” project funded last year with Kickstarter, but didn’t get the funding level required there. The Mission to the Moon would’ve given lots of people the opportunity to send their very own spacecraft to the moon.  Exciting, right? Except that the money didn’t come in. Such a situation might have discouraged a few people.  And yet, here they are at PocketSpacecraft, still attempting to get more people to become crazy about space operations.

One of the lessons a person learns early in life is that while failures are unpleasant, the way someone reacts to that failure says a lot about the character and ethic driving that person. Instead of taking the easy way out by throwing up hands and walking away, huddling in the corner to cry, or just throwing a tantrum and then just sitting there blaming everyone else, there’s a lot to be said for that anguished shout, that hysterical laugh, or that resigned shrug which is then followed by tenaciously trying to keep a project and people moving towards success.

The latter seems to be the defining characteristic of the people behind  Not only are they carrying on their mission as if nothing kicked them in the guts with Kickstarter, they’re still pursuing the Mission to the Moon, and they’d like your help, moneywise. There are all sorts of funding levels they’ve listed on their site, here (near the bottom of the page). But the fun really begins at the 99 GBP (Pounds Sterling) funding level, where an “Earth Scout” spacecraft is launched into the Earth’s orbit, then attempts to land back on Earth.

The highest level of 5000 GBP is no longer available, but for a mere 1 GBP less, you could gain the title of “Rocket Scientist” with all the perks that entails.  Those would be delivered sometime in December 2014. Of course, an interested individual can start for as little as 9 GBP.  But you won’t get your very own spacecraft.  Any old how, at worst, you’ll just have “a universe” of fun.

Russia’s Fregat: What Mission Assurance?

“Quit fiddling with it. The helium line is fine where it is.” Fregat image from the ESA image library.

Placing a satellite in the wrong orbit.  It’s what the delightful world of mission assurance is supposed to prevent.  If you talk to any space operator, mission assurance is the sexiest profession in the space realm…JK–not really!  If anything, the typical space operator falls asleep at the first fishbone chart presented in the omnipresent and snore-inducing PowerPoint presentation tool. And heaven help the poor fool who got caught in the hallway to be brought in to listen to some enthusiastic engineer wax poetic about particular thermal characteristics of a passive radiator in a scatter chart.  The victim might suffer from whiplash at the sudden onset of near universal narcolepsy brought on by such deadly characterization tools…and boom goes the satellite.

So maybe that’s what happened when NPO Lavochkin presented their processes and plans to the Galileo satellite team for the Fregat upper stage.  How else could something like locating a freezing cold helium line next to the fuel line have not been noticed?  At least that’s what an independent review panel figured out AFTER the orbital disaster and concluded in a report on 8 October, 2014.

Although, typically such technical information, as what Lavochkin may have briefed the Galileo team, tends to be given by a particular personality to the same kind of particular personality.  And the receiving personality tends to give the data a very critical eye before nodding the go ahead to the next slide.  But this IEEE Spectrum post indicates that the plans for the Fregat upper stage that ultimately placed the Galileo satellite in the wrong orbit had “ambiguities.”  This means the “blueprints” of the Fregat might have not presented the whole picture highlighting the potential problem of the Fregat to the Galileo team.  If there was any following up of the ambiguities, it apparently wasn’t forceful enough to get the Russian company to double-check the design.

For those who don’t know, mission assurance is the process that usually watches and sometimes informs other space project processes.  Usually it’s associated with managing risks (some try to associate it with zero risk) to a project.  But it’s really a bit more complicated than that, since engineers obviously designed it.  It’s how companies like the Aerospace Corporation make their bread and butter.  They usually provide independent reviews and assessments of the engineering, building and operating processes other contractors use for space component production.  It’s a cumbersome and burdensome process.

But the US government and a few others believe mission assurance to be a valuable service, and therefore use it.  Does it work?  Does it keep the elephants away?*  If you look at the record of the United Launch Alliance in the last few years, which hasn’t lost a launch for a while, the answer could be a “yes.”  But maybe they’re lucky.

Which brings us back to the Russians.  Maybe they’ve been lucky all this time with Fregat.  Unfortunately for the Galileo’s mission assurance team (they do have one, right?), that luck ran out on 22 August 2014.  Anyone out there up for a European tour?

*This is a joke based on a humorous Sufi Nasrudin teaching story.  It goes like this:  A man who worked in an office suddenly started to slam his desk drawers and yell at the top of his lungs in the morning.  He did this for a few days before a friend approached him and asked, “Why are you making all this noise every morning?”  The man replied,”It’s to keep the elephants away.”  To which his friend then stated, “But there are no elephants here.”  The noisemaker nodded with satisfaction and said, “You see!! It works!”

“Space Ventura,” Space Detective

Space Detective

This is an odd business opportunity, and one which Air and Space Evidence Ltd. looks keen and ready to exploit.  Their work seems to identify a gap that civil local government services haven’t yet addressed:  solving crimes using Earth Observation imagery.  The company isn’t just focusing on capital crimes, such as murder (although this NewScientist story talks about a murder-solving attempt).  The company is also looking to solve other sorts of mysteries.  If the mystery occurred at a time and place in which an Earth Observing satellite happened to be looking, then there may be a chance to get evidence and analyze it.

This seems to be one of the big services Air and Space Evidence offers:  contacting the owners of the satellite data, getting it, and then interpreting the data.  This way, customers who aren’t necessarily familiar with Earth Observation companies, don’t really have to be.  Air and Space Evidence will do that work, and provide other space-related expertise for them.

Another issue, which is not quite obvious to anyone who has not worked with imagery–making sure the imagery can be authenticated and used by the courts.  It seems that some artifacts and imagery accuracy could be questioned by the courts, who could toss out the imagery if they thought it was tampered with or junk.

This “authentication” may actually be a higher standard than what is required by government customers, like the US government, when imagery is analyzed and interpreted.  It’s not that the current crop of imagery analysts are inept–there are analysts in private companies and government organizations who are very good at interpreting Earth Observation data.  But a third party might be a good idea as a business practice soon.  A preferably unbiased third party could examine the data, give it a good analysis to see just how well it holds up, then “certify” it.

With the very quick expansion of imagery satellites and payloads orbiting the Earth for private companies, the work that Air and Space Evidence is attempting to do looks like a very smart grab at an opportunity that can potentially be very rewarding.  There will very likely be room for others.

A Landmark Anniversary for Space?

The first image of Earth from space. Image was atop an A-4 rocket. Image hosted on Wikimedia.  Go here to read more about this rocket and image.

Oct. 3, 1942–72 years ago–an A-4 test rocket was launched from Peenemuende Army Research Center.  The fourth A-4 to be tested, it was the first to successfully fly.  It was also the first rocket to reach the edges of outer space (it flew about 85-90 kilometers above the Earth).

If you’ve never heard of the A-4, there’s another name for it you’re probably more familiar with:  V2.  So yes, the Germans, NAZI Germans in particular, were responsible for achieving a very historic moment–something everyone should have been proud of.  It’s unfortunate that NAZIs were the ones to do this with their V2 for the very obvious reasons that were later exposed through history.

However, such a feat is what led the US government to eventually hire ex-NAZI German scientists after the war, in a secret program called Operation Paperclip.  The US intelligence agencies were convinced the Germans were at least 25 years ahead of the US scientists and engineers.  So they recommended vetting the NAZI scientists, and if they passed certain criteria, they recommended thne hiring the best brains of Germany.

Celebrate, then, the achievement of the first spaceflight conducted by man.  The rather rotten roots of that labor yielded fruit that helped to accelerate the US space and missile programs.  But remember, there were people in the war who were involved–both criminals and victims–who should be thought of as well.  About 27,000 victims died as they assembled and constantly perfected the V2 as a weapon for the Reich.  If you’d like to read more about this particular aspect of NAZI space history, please read my 7 part series, starting with this particular post, here.  Warning–it can get a little depressing.