Science & Astronomy
22. December 2015

The past one and a half weeks were action-packed with all sorts of amazing happenings, but because there’s so much going on all the time I decided to make this a sort of end-of-year posting covering both weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays. The launch of three astronauts to the International Space Station last week was fantastic, but the absolute highlight was, of course, the successful launch and landing of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on Monday night. There was also a successful launch of the next-generation Progress to the ISS, the passed budget which was good news for NASA and interesting news about Mars and Pluto from the AGU meeting and a few other things. Overall, 2015 was one of the most exciting years for spaceflight and space exploration despite some setbacks earlier – but everything is back on track now and more exciting things are coming next year!

A few notes regarding the winter holidays: the Weekly Space Hangout and most other hangouts are taking a break this and next week but will be back in January – we’ll keep everyone informed in the WSH Crew Google+ Community, where we also keep up with all the news and other things over the winter break. The WSH Crew Website will also be kept up to date and I will also post updates on my social media streams, primarily Google+, if there are any news. You can also follow my Space & Astronomy Collection on Google+ (which you already do if you have me circled), for all my space and science related postings.  But now on to the last round of news of the year 2015!

» ‘The Falcon Has Landed’ – SpaceX Soft Lands Rocket after Launch in Historic Feat – This was worth staying up late! Not only has SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket and delivered eleven Orbcomm satellites into orbit, but the first stage came back to Earth intact in a precision pinpoint landing. Something like this has never been done before but after the first two almost successful attempts it was only a matter of time until the first stage landing worked – perhaps the decision to actually get the rocket back on land instead of a sea barge was what did the trick. December 21, 2015 is going to be a key date in spaceflight history from now on, but Elon Musk’s ‘nemesis’ Jeff Bezos, whose rival Blue Origin spaceflight company did a similar thing about a month ago with a much smaller rocket, wrote a snarky tweet congratulating them for the suborbital booster stage landing and welcoming them ‘to the club’. The Falcon 9 first stage is, of course, suborbital by nature, but still a lot bigger and more powerful than Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket – in the end, both have completely different purposes and are not really comparable. Together, they are still amazing achievements which could turn the whole spaceflight industry around in the long term. SpaceX has uploaded the full webcast of the launch and a short video of the first stage landing shot from a helicopter on Youtube.

» First British Astronaut blasts off to ISS with Russian/American Crewmates (Universe Today/Ken Kremer) – Rookie astronaut Tim Peake has earned his space wings and the launch to the ISS could not have been more spectacular – and in addition, the docking was a bit exciting because the automatic system failed and they had to approach the station manually. I actually did a short blog post myself and one about the excellent BBC live coverage over on DVDLog. The manual docking was somewhat exciting and there are some reports that a failed thruster was responsible for the abort. The actions of Yuri Malenchenko also seem to be under investigation because the first manual approach attempt was unsuccessful and only the second one worked – possibly because the pilot was under pressure from the russian ground station. But all went well nevertheless and the astronauts have already been very busy.

» Spacewalkers free up jammed rail car, get set for Russian cargo delivery (Geekwire/Alan Boyle) – A transport car on the space stations’s main truss had jammed stuck and an emergency spacewalk was done by Scott Kelly and Tim Kopra, who had only arrived on the ISS a few days before. The relatively short spacewalk went ahead without problems.

» Soyuz 2 Booster delivers Progress MS Cargo Craft to accurate Orbit (Spaceflight101) – The launch was fortunately flawless and while the approach to the station is deliberately a bit longer than usual to check out the new spacecraft, everything seems to be working fine. Docking is scheduled for early Wednesday at 3.30am EST.

» An Extraordinary Budget for NASA in 2016 (Planetary Society/Casey Dreier) – Although the budget for the Space Launch System is almost obscenely high, almost everything else including the Planetary division is on the winning side. Both the Opportunity Mars rover and the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, which were infamously excluded from the President’s budget proposal, are funded and the Commercial Crew program has also gotten what is urgently needed. The budget was passed on Friday in both House and Senate and was signed by the President immediately.

» RD-180 Engine Procurement Ban Overturned (AmericaSpace/Craig Covault) – This was a hidden surprise in the budget and caused a lot of political strife since there was already a fight going on regarding ULA and the RD-180.

» NASA orders second Boeing Crew Mission to the ISS (SpaceDaily) – Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon are the two spacecraft selected by NASA for the new crew transport program to the ISS and it was only expected that Boeing would get at least one more flight.

» Curiosity stories from AGU: The fortuitous find of a puzzling mineral on Mars, and a gap in Gale’s history (Planetary Society/Emily Lakdawalla) – The American Geophysican Union meeting was this week and Emily reports exciting news from Mars and the Curiosity rover.

» Pluto updates from AGU and DPS: Pretty pictures from a confusing world (Planetary Society/Emily Lakdawalla) – Another detailed article from Emily about the amazing recent image releases from the New Horizons mission.

» NASA Gives up on Fixing Mars Insight in Time for March Launch (SpaceNews/Brian Berger/Dan Leone) – There was one bit of sad news for the end of the year – NASA’s InSight Mars lander won’t be launching next year because the French SEIS seismic instrument cannot not be fixed until then. This means that due to the varying distances between Earth and Mars the next good launch window will only open in about two years and InSight has to wait until then. CNES still seems to be hopeful that the problem can be fixed until the January 5 deadline, though. [Update: NASA does not seem to think so and has officially called the launch off. This is very sad for the InSight science team!]

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