Philae’s Batteries Have Drained, Comet Lander Sleeps


Philae, first comet lander, Nov. 12, 2014 – Nov. 15, 2014 (CET).

In the final hours, Philae’s science team hurried to squeeze as much science out of the small lander as possible. But the deep sleep was inevitable, Rosetta’s lander has slipped into hibernation after running its batteries dry.

In its final hour, the official Philae Twitter feed conversed with the official Rosetta account, saying, “I’m feeling a bit tired, did you get all my data? I might take a nap.”

“My #lifeonacomet has just begun @ESA_Rosetta. I’ll tell you more about my new home, comet #67P soon… zzzzz,” it tweeted before falling silent just as the European Space Agency confirmed that Philae had run so low on battery power that it had to drop into hibernation, ceasing all science operations.

NEWS: Rosetta Spies Philae’s First Precision Comet Landing

“Prior to falling silent, the lander was able to transmit all science data gathered during the First Science Sequence,” said Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager. “This machine performed magnificently under tough conditions, and we can be fully proud of the incredible scientific success Philae has delivered.”

Contact with the lander was lost at 01:36 CET (7:36 p.m. EST), which is around the time the Rosetta spacecraft orbited beyond the comet’s horizon, severing the communications link with its lander.

According to the ESA Rosetta mission blog, reestablishing communications will not be possible unless enough sunlight falls on the lander’s solar array to charge up its batteries.

PHOTOS: When Philae Grabbed a Comet

Earlier Friday evening, mission scientists sent commands to the lander to turn its body so that the small amount of sunlight Philae does receive (only 1.5 hours of light per 20 hour comet rotation) will hit more of the solar panels, boosting the possibility of a recharge. But there is only a very slim chance that this operation will bring Philae out of hibernation.

Although this likely spells the end of Rosetta’s surface mission with Philae, as the comet continues its journey around the sun with spacecraft in tow, the solar angle may change, casting more light on the rover in coming weeks — but this is a long-shot.

Regardless, Rosetta will listen out for Philae when the next communication window opens, on Saturday (Nov. 15) at 11:00 CET (5:00 a.m. EST).

NEWS: Philae to Attempt Risky Comet ‘Hop’ for Survival

This may be the end of Philae’s short and trailblazing mission on the surface of Comet 67P, but a huge amount of data — including data from a drilling operation that, apparently, was carried out despite concerns that Philae wasn’t positioned correctly — was streamed to Rosetta mission control, potentially revolutionizing our understanding about the nature of comets.

And Rosetta will continue orbiting its comet as 67P drops closer to the sun, providing us with a unique and historic perspective on an icy body that could hold the secrets to the formation of our solar system.


Race to Build NASA Space Taxi Down to the Wire

A three-way race to build a commercially operated spaceship to shuttle astronauts — and other paying customers — to and from low-Earth orbit is close the finish line, with NASA aiming to award development and flight service contracts as early as next week.

So far, two companies favoring capsule designs — Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX — have won the lion’s share of NASA’s Commercial Crew program funds. The effort, which began in 2010, is intended to provide a U.S. alternative for flying crews to the International Space Station, which orbits about 260 miles above Earth.

Since NASA retired the space shuttles in 2011, the only human transportation system flying to the station is owned by Russia, which charges about $70 million per person for rides on its Soyuz capsules. NASA hopes to change that before the end of 2017.

NEWS: Space Taxi, Please! NASA Investing $1.1 Bln

Along with Boeing and SpaceX, NASA has been funding space taxi design work at a third company, Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corp., though its contracts have been about half of what Boeing and SpaceX received.

Sierra Nevada eschewed the capsule design in favor of a small winged spaceplane called Dream Chaser, which resembles a miniature space shuttle. The company has signed partnership agreements with more than 30 companies, nine universities, nine NASA field centers and three international space agencies, a strategy that could provide some flexibility if it is not selected for additional NASA funding.

“We’ve always looked at this as a system, with the space station being a mission. There are other missions that we are looking at. Having this wide group of companies allows us to look at construction, repair missions, the ability to do short- and long-duration science missions independent of the space station,” Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada Space Systems president, told Discovery News.

“For us, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars less at the start of the competition put us at a schedule disadvantage — we couldn’t do as many things — but it made us be a lot more creative in how we were going to manage the last two years,” Sirangelo said.

PHOTOS: Dragon’s Bounty: SpaceX Mission Complete

“Showing that you can manage to a very tight budget is a pretty big thing,” he added.

Like Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, the Dream Chaser initially would fly on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, which uses a controversial Russian-built motor to power its first stage. Russia has threatened to cut off exports of the motors for military missions in response to U.S. embargoes punishing Russia for incursions into Ukraine. So far, however, the rocket business has continued unimpeded.

SpaceX, which already flies cargo to the space station aboard its Dragon capsules, is adding seats, life support and other upgrades for a passenger version. Both types of Dragon spacecraft launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.

So far, NASA has spent about $1.5 billion on the Commercial Crew program. The agency says competition is critical to drive down costs and reduce technical risks. It intends to continue backing development of two space taxi designs, though has not said how it will pay for that.

As part of the program, companies contribute development funds and will own their vehicles and intellectual property. NASA wants to buy flight services, similar to how it pays SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp to make supply runs to the station.

NEWS: Commercial Moon Flights Coming Soon?

Even without NASA funding, SpaceX says it will continue developing its human version of Dragon, albeit at a slower pace.

Sierra Nevada will wait to see what happens with the contract awards before deciding how to proceed, said Sirangelo.

“If we weren’t a winner, we need to understand why and that’s going to factor into our thinking … but we’re still planning to move forward,” Sirangelo said.

Boeing’s take is that without NASA investment and flight service contracts, building a business case for the CST-100 “would be very difficult to do,” John Mulholland, Boeing vice president, said earlier this month at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2014 conference in San Diego.

Contract awards are expected by early September.

SpaceX Delays Falcon Launch After Test Vehicle Explosion

Launch of SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 rocket is on hold, pending a review after a related test vehicle self-destructed during a flight test last week.

The company had planned to launch its 12th Falcon 9 rocket early Wednesday to put a communications satellite into orbit for Asia Satellite Telecommunications Holdings. It would have been the second launch this month for Hong Kong-based AsiaSat, which is paying SpaceX about $110 million for the two flights.

NEWS: SpaceX Releases New Video of Rocket ‘Soft Splashdown’

SpaceX decided late Tuesday afternoon to postpone the launch so engineers could “triple-check” if there are any failure scenarios that have been overlooked.

Initial analysis shows no direct link between the problem that caused SpaceX’s Falcon 9R development vehicle to self-destruct on Friday about 17 seconds after launch from the company’s McGregor, Texas, facility.

The Falcon 9R problem stemmed from a blocked sensor port, company founder and chief executive Elon Musk said in a statement released late Tuesday.

NEWS: SpaceX Reusable Rocket Prototype Explodes Over Texas

“Had the same … problem occurred with an operational Falcon 9, it would have been outvoted by several other sensors. That voting system was not present on the test vehicle,” Musk wrote.

“What we do want to triple-check is whether even highly improbable corner case scenarios have the optimal fault detection and recovery logic. This has already been reviewed by SpaceX and multiple outside agencies, so the most likely outcome is no change,” he added.

The extra analysis will delay the AsiaSat launch one to two weeks.

Curiosity Does Drilling U-Turn on Wobbly Mars Rock

Despite its name, one Mars rock isn’t about to enrich NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity with a cascade of science.

After a drilling test last week on a Mars rock dubbed “Bonanza King,” Mars Science Laboratory mission managers noticed that the rock was unstable. So to avoid any unnecessary risk to the rover’s robotic arm-mounted drilling tools, further drilling work in the area was canceled.

ANALYSIS: Curiosity Scrubs Mars Rock, Possible Drilling Target

Previous to the wobbly discovery, Bonanza King was cleaned by Curiosity’s surface abrasion tool, which cleared off a layer of oxidized dust. In the rock is an interesting vein of white material — possibly sulfate salts — but, alas, Curiosity won’t be sampling any of the rock’s hidden secrets.

“We have decided that the rocks under consideration for drilling, based on the tests we did, are not good candidates for drilling,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Instead of drilling here, we will resume driving toward Mount Sharp.”

PHOTOS: Curiosity Snaps Selfies, Begins Mars Rock Drill

The drilling test was carried out by Curiosity’s percussion tool, which acts like a small chisel by making an indentation in the rock’s surface. But during the impacts, the rock moved slightly. With the previous three successful drilling targets, the rocks were part of more extensive outcrops that provided stability. Bonanza King and the other potential targets in Curiosity’s current location are simply too wobbly for a safe drill.

This is only the latest challenge Curiosity has faced during its epic journey to the 3.4 mile (5.5 kilometer) high Aeolis Mons (known as “Mount Sharp”). Earlier this month, the six-wheeled rover began driving through “Hidden Valley” on its way to Bonanza King, but it experienced some wobbliness itself as it tried to trundle over loose sand.

PHOTOS: Mars Wear and Tear: Curiosity’s Wheel Damage

“After further analysis of the sand, Hidden Valley does not appear to be navigable with the desired degree of confidence,” Erickson said. “We will use a route avoiding the worst of the sharp rocks as we drive slightly to the north of Hidden Valley.”

Since landing on Mars in 2012, Curiosity has notched up an impressive 5.5 miles (8.8 kilometers) of hard Mars driving that has taken its toll on the rover’s wheels. However, there’s only another 2 to 3 miles until Curiosity reaches Mount Sharp’s lower slopes, a goal that is just within reach.

Concept for XS-1 Military Space Plane Unveiled

The world is starting to get a better idea of what the U.S. military’s proposed new space plane might look like.

This week, aerospace firm Northrop Grumman released artwork depicting its conception of the XS-1 space plane, which it’s designing under a $3.9 million contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Northrop Grumman is one of three companies competing for the right to build the unmanned XS-1, which is short for “Experimental Spaceplane.” The other two are Boeing and Masten Space Systems, both of which also won yearlong “Phase 1” initial design contracts in July.

PHOTOS: Introducing the Warpship

DARPA wants the XS-1 to make spaceflight much more routine and affordable. The reusable vehicle should be able to fly 10 times in a 10-day span and launch 3,000- to 5,000-lb. (1,361 to 2,268 kilograms) payloads to orbit for less than $5 million per flight, officials have said.

XS-1 will probably feature a reusable first stage and one or more expendable upper stages. The first stage will fly to suborbital space at hypersonic speeds, then return to Earth to be used again; the upper stages will deploy payloads to orbit.

Northrop Grumman is teaming with other aerospace companies on its design, tapping Scaled Composites to head manufacture-and-assembly work and Virgin Galactic to lead XS-1 operation.

“Our team is uniquely qualified to meet DARPA’s XS-1 operational system goals, having built and transitioned many developmental systems to operational use, including our current work on the world’s only commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo,” Doug Young, vice president for missile defense and advanced missions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, said in a statement.

Secret Military Mini-Shuttle Lands in California

“We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments,” he added.

Northrop Grumman is not alone in reaching out to other firms for assistance in developing an XS-1 design. Masten is working with XCOR Aerospace, and Boeing is teaming with Jeff Bezos’ secretive firm Blue Origin.

DARPA expects to hold a Phase 2 competition next year to see which company makes it to the flight-test stage of XS-1 development. (The agency only has enough money for one XS-1 contractor in the end.) Officials currently envision that the first orbital mission of XS-1 will take place in 2018.

Originally published on

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