Lots of good news (from space) recently

This is a picture of an unmanned Mars rover named Perseverance launched on July 30. The launch vehicle was a current-generation Atlas rocket (the Atlas 541) whose genealogy goes back to our first ballistic missile way back in the 1960’s. It was a flawless countdown followed by a beautiful Florida dawn launch. The rover is scheduled to arrive in Mars orbit in February 2021. Perseverance is even carrying a tiny helicopter designed to fly autonomously in Mars’ thin atmosphere. As Spock so often remarked: ‘fascinating.’

A few nights ago, we stepped out on the deck and watched the space station gliding by in the night sky. This time it was preceded by a smaller spot of light that was the SpaceX Dragon Crew capsule, undocked and prepared for re-entry (more about this later).

I was an engineer in my working days, so it boggles my mind that capsules docking and undocking with the space station today do so autonomously — on-board computers handle it all — rate of closure, alignment, position of the capsule and assurance the capsule is not rotating to put unwanted torque on the docking port, etc., etc.

And speaking of the space station, if you are interested in viewing it from your house, just type spot the station into your internet browser and click on sighting opportunities, then click on your hometown on the map, and view sighting opportunities. You will see a list of dates and times you can see the station — assuming the sky is clear of clouds. It appears as a bright spark of light, brighter than any of the stars, moving surprisingly fast.

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, does a nice job of launching cargo (and astronauts) to the International Space Station using their workhorse Soyuz launchers. NASA-TV covered the July 23 Soyuz 2.1a launch and I was impressed by how uneventful the whole thing was: countdown to launch, liftoff, SRB separation, main engine throttle back and up again as the vehicle passes through max-Q, then MECO (main engine cut off) and stage separation, followed by second and third stage burns. And after only two orbits (!!!) the Progress freight capsule docks autonomously with the space station. Roscosmos has been doing about 3 Soyuz launches per year to the station. Some carry cargo, some carry astronauts. We’ve had to rely on Russian rockets to carry Americans to orbit since we ended the Space Shuttle program in 2003.

But this year an American made, person-carrying launcher is on line. SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) launched 2 NASA astronauts to the space station on a vehicle they’ve named Crew Dragon. They launched May 30, 2020 and returned to Earth August 2 in a perfect re-entry and splash down. I was once again thrilled to see problem-free performance by people, hardware, and software. Unlike all previous manned space vehicles, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule has all touch-screen controls and instruments—no analog controls or instruments. SpaceX is funded by owner, Elon Musk of Tesla fame, among other investors.

I hope you took time to view the comet last month. Named Neowise (don’t ask me why), it was the first comet visible with the naked eye for many years. It was fun seeing it through binoculars, low in the northwest sky just after dark. In years past, other comets have been visible, but this is the first comet I’ve ever seen.


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