Tag Archives: European Space Agency

Search The Skies for Objects Out to get You

This is how science helps find asteroids, frame by frame. Now you can help them, too. Image from the European Space Agency.

One of my favorite sites, TheVerge.com, covered this year’s SXSW (South By SouthWest) activities. They posted this article about an application NASA and Planetary Resources released during SXSW for public downloading. The application, called Asteroid Data Hunter (ADH-not the greatest name), will allow people to upload images of the stars. Then the application will sift through the images to see if there’s a possible asteroid within them.

That capability, the automated comparison of differences in each picture, seems to be the story about ADH. NASA says the program can identify more asteroids because of a new algorithm developed as part of a related competition.

Why use this application? It’s sort of like a celestial “Neighborhood Watch” program. Knowing what’s normally in your neighborhood allows you to recognize when something different and possibly bad is occurring. ADH will help NASA determine which asteroids might be on a trajectory that intersects with Earth one day. Those asteroids, called Near Earth Objects (NEOs), have gained some notoriety lately, thanks to events such as the asteroid impact near Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013. It might be good to be able to identify NEOs, and maybe do something about it.

For Planetary Resources, a participant’s efforts might help them identify asteroids that could one day be mined. Yes, that’s “mined,” as in prospectors looking for and digging up gold, silver, and anything else useful and desirable to humans. No word on whether Planetary Resources would give a percentage of profit to any ADH participants who gave the company a profitable tip. That might actually encourage more participation, by the way.

While the application is free, the intended participants may be more narrow than either NASA or Planetary Resources anticipated. First, if you want to participate, it’s probably helpful if you have a telescope…probably one with a camera mounted to it. You might need special software to help make sure you’re aiming at the right part of the sky, consistently.

But, if you have all of that, then all you need to do is download the application (available right here), search the skies with your telescope, and help save the world AND get someone else rich. Aren’t you the generous hero?

In the meantime, if you don’t have all that equipment, but are interesting in NEOs and what people are doing to possibly keep them from hitting the Earth, then I recommend heading over to the Earth Shield Program website. It’s very interesting.

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: http://new.livestream.com/esa/cometlanding

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:  https://twitter.com/ESA_Rosetta

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.


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!”

Groovy Man! Satellite Helps with Earthquake

Haight-Ashbury comes to mind for some reason…Image from ESA.

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced the results of a decision to use California’s Napa Valley earthquake as an opportunity to show how satellites might be able to provide information.  In this case, the ESA tasked their low earth orbiting (LEO) Sentinel-1 satellite‘s Synthetic Aperture Radar Interferometry payload to take a look at the affected area.  The payload helped to highlight the distortions in the Earth’s surface that resulted from the Earthquake, shown in the image above.  It also pinpointed the earthquake’s origination area, identified by the bowed bands seen near the top center of the image.

The above image was created by using an image of the area that was taken by Sentinel-1 before the earthquake, and combining it with information collected by Sentinel-1 of the area after the earthquake.  ESA call this an ‘interferogram.’  Why is this capability important?  Because the satellite’s interferogram helps to show earthquake breaks that weren’t identified before, giving earthquake scientists a more complete earthquake map.  In Napa Valley’s instance, the fault actually is shown to extend further than originally mapped.

How else might this help?  Since I am not any sort of scientist, I can only give guesses.  One might be to help identify unstable areas that have been created by an earthquake.  Day after day interferograms showing daily changes in an area might be a way to determine that.  This would give critical information to emergency responders about areas to avoid during and after a disaster.  Another application might be for insurance agencies that may have a collection of annual images to show areas where soil shifts, helping to identify which areas would not be a great place to build a home.

Sentinel-1. Image from the ESA.

Sentinel-1 is the first satellite of a two-satellite constellation.  Sentinel-2 will launch sometime in 2015.  There are five other ‘Sentinel’ satellites planned to orbit the Earth, but the ESA is putting a few of them in different orbits.  Plans do change though…


Intercepting a Comet

Image of comet 67P/C-G. Image hosted on ESA’s Rosetta website.

“[T]he sexiest, most fantastic mission ever,” those are the words of an obviously very sexually confused European Space Agency scientist about the Rosetta satellite’s interception and orbiting of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  The quote comes from Gizmodo’s post about the current successes of the Rosetta satellite exploration mission.

And while the scientist might be sexually confused, thankfully there’s no confusion about the commands and science required to get Rosetta to the comet.  It has been successful, with Rosetta achieving orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 6 Aug., 2014.  Rosetta itself has been trying to catch up with the comet for a little over 10 years, which is a long time for any scientist, sexually confused or otherwise, to wait.

For those who aren’t keeping track, but have some small interest, Rosetta is important in helping us Earthlings understand the state of our Solar System millions of years ago.  The comet it’s now orbiting potentially has information about the building blocks of the Solar System.  The next big step is to get the satellite’s lander, Philae, on to the comet’s surface sometime in November (the ESA are currently aiming for 11 Nov., 2014).  But, right now, the ESA is content with taking readings and images of the comet.

In January 2014, I posted a blurb about how ESA had awakened Rosetta for its approach to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  That seems like such a long time ago, and now here we are, with Rosetta orbiting the comet.  I’m not going to say it’s sexy, but it is pretty nifty.  I’m not that confused.

If you want to follow the Rosetta satellite’s path, from launch through comet intercept and beyond, you can always go to this website:  http://sci.esa.int/where_is_rosetta/.  It’s just a looping animation of the satellite’s path, and you can witness, virtually, the interception of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko with Rosetta.  Of course, you can read more about Rosetta’s mission on the ESA website, too, which is linked to here.