All posts by HSF-NextGen

ISS, Antares and the Russian war of aggression

If you’ve not heard of the Antares rocket and the role it plays launching supplies to the ISS from the U.S., that’s okay. Antares has quietly carried out its mission, mostly without incident, for the past four years. Each launch from NASA’s Wallops Island Spaceport in Virginia lofts a Cygnus cargo module built by Orbital ATK to the ISS. SpaceX gets lots more coverage of its ISS launches thanks to its expert marketing team. Northrop Grumman is the manufacturer/purveyor of the Antares.

Antares from its inception was built on Russian (and USSR) rocket motors. Today, the first-stage propulsive force that helps get the Antares Cygnus to orbit comes from two Russian RD-181 motors. The Antares first stage core is manufactured by Yuzhmash, a Ukrainian company.

Thanks to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, Northrup Grumman can no longer source new RD-181 engines. Ukraine is too badly battered and disrupted to reliably produce the first stage cores used by Antarers. At this point, Antares has supplies sufficient for two more launches.

From its beginnings, the Russian attack on the Ukraine — and the USA’s response — were expected to have downstream effects on International Space Station operations. Initial concerns focused on whether or not Russia would continue to sell seats on its Soyuz taxi to carry US astronauts to and from the orbital space station. Some wondered if Russia would decouple from the ISS program.

So far, the operational flow on ISS has not been substantially impacted. Thankfully, SpaceX Crew Dragon and the version of Dragon used for resupply of ISS were up and running before the European conflict got underway. With Boeing apparently closing in on operational status for its CST-100 crew transport, greater redundancy for getting astronauts to ISS is about to arrive.

The possible loss of Antares would affect the cadence of ISS resupply missions and potentially require a rescheduling of on-orbit operations while alternative paths to orbit are worked out. The Cygnus can reach orbit using the Atlas V manufactured by ULA. The Atlas V uses the RD-180 engine also manufactured in Russia. In any case, ULA is already scheduled to fly-out its existing inventory of Atlas, so a ride might not be available on the Atlas V.

With the Vulcan rocket — the follow-on to Atlas — not ready to fly, we may soon see a push to use the Falcon 9 to deliver Cygnus to ISS. A solution will be needed soon.

One thing is for certain: the wisdom of commercial resupply and commercial crew programs is being validated by today’s geopolitical complexities. In retrospect — always easy to say things retrospectively — an emphasis or requirement that rocket motors be sourced within the US seems essential.

Webb Telescope: L2 or Bust

If all goes according to plan, on December 22, a Arianespace rocket will lift off from the European Space Agency’s launch complex in French Guiana. The Webb Telescope will be onboard. This launch and the deploying of the telescope are perhaps the most audacious and risky technological challenges sponsored by NASA since it first sent astronauts to the surface of the moon (and brought them back), conducted the first Space Shuttle launch, and successfully placed the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars.

How so, you ask?

This mission aims to park the telescope in a gravitationally stable Lagrange Point (L2) one million miles from Earth. That is something, for sure, but it is by no means the most complex thing to be accomplished on this mission. It’s just the first step.

The telescope and its associated equipment are wrapped-up tight for launch. The package, once at L2, will need to unfold and assemble itself over the span of a month through thousands of mechanical steps that MUST GO ACCORDING TO PLAN — ALL OF THEM! There is no mission redundancy. No room for error. No way to send a repair flight if any of the unfolding and integration processes get gummed up.

All together the starting cost of the mission is $10 billion. Billion.

If it all works out, a successful launch followed by delicate unlatchings, unwindings, unveilings, pivotings and relatching of equipment, then we will have one million miles from Earth a new telescope with a mirror nearly 3-times the size of that on the Hubble Telescope and a field of view (breadth of view) 15-times that of Hubble. It will be capable of viewing infrared light dating back nearly to the beginning of time. The platform will be the size of a tennis court, approximately. On the backside (underneath) of that “court” temperatures will be around 300 degrees F. On the upper (telescope-side) surface of the court, temperatures will be around -300 F. A six-hundred degree difference. If that temperature differential isn’t achieved as planned, well then bollocks!

The package has been tested time and again. Tested in facilities that create a vacuum like that encountered in space. Tested in facilities that ensure the telescope is ready for the shakes and vibrations of launch. Tested in facilities that put the telescope through swings in temperature. The unfolding mechanisms have been run through its paces.

The JPL staff who handle Mars missions talk about the “7 minutes of terror” that come with landing rovers on that planet’s surface — as the vehicle passes through atmospheric entry, begins a fast descent and then lands smoothly. For Webb, buckle up. We are in for weeks of terror (or maybe silent prayers on a frequent basis) as this remarkably complex and complex telescope unfolds and prepares for 5-10 years of operation.


It looks like old times — the good kind — at KSC, as the recent spike in activity at the Vehicle Assembly Building is reminiscent of the Shuttle era. This time, it’s the stacking of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule that has the high-bays humming as NASA’s own human-rated, heavy-lift vehicle is prepped for a full-up launch. It’s been a long time coming: Artemis I, aiming to send an Orion capsule to the Moon and back.

NASA is saying the flight will commence at Launch Complex 39 no earlier than February 2022, assuming the full-up integration and testing goes as planned. Once more, the Mobile Launch Platform, its massive crawler and Pad 39B will be brought together as the jumping-off point for deep-space flights. Then we’ll cross our fingers as fit-checks are performed, test fueling of the core is conducted and confidence is achieved that vehicle is ready to go.

When Artemis I and the SLS fire-up, we will witness four flight-proven RS-25 main engines — coupled with a pair of solid rocket boosters evolved from Shuttle-times — loft a human-ready spacecraft beyond Earth orbit for the first time since 1972.

While the cadence of SLS launches will not match the pace of Saturn V or Shuttle era flights, Artemis 1 is the harbinger of possibilities to come: deep-space flights, exploration at local LaGrange points and beyond, and the ability to lift the equipment necessary to build complex, multi-component vehicles for extended human spaceflight and stays on the Moon. How SLS might be supplemented by or paired with the capabilities of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Starship are to be determined. But the prospects are exciting and the skies will be the limit no more beginning in 2022. Stay tuned.

2020: When US Crewed Flight Comes back into Focus

In the annals of spaceflight, 2020 likely will be remembered as one of the most significant and transformative moments for U.S. space travel, close behind the initial triumphs of the Apollo-Saturn and Shuttle-ISS programs.  For the first time in this nation’s history, we will see the introduction of two, independently designed and operated means for delivering crews to low Earth orbit. The promise of the commercial crewed flight program will be realized as the United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Boeing bring the Starliner vehicle online and SpaceX lofts its crewed Dragon capsule for the first time.

On the heels of these breakthroughs, NASA continues its Space Launch System (SLS) campaign. It will be exciting to see this massive vehicle enter true, full-up integration and testing on its way to providing the world with a capability it has not had since the early 1970’s: a means to transport astronauts out of Earth’s orbit to destinations as far flung as the Moon, various LaGrange Points and a decade or so from now Mars.

Concurrently, we have Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic getting ready to introduce regular flight options for people with the means and the courage to experience suborbital flight. Sierra Nevada, undaunted by off-again, on-again funding, appears committed to realizing its Dreamchaser “space plane” design as a commercial cargo option for the ISS and other potential destinations in LEO.

SpaceX will continue to build and test its audacious Starhopper proof-of-concept vehicles with the aim of delivering considerable numbers of explorers and colonists to Mars someday.

This diversity of engineering efforts, creativity and outcomes has become the core strength of U.S. spaceflight capabilities. It is something we must sustain and continue to subsidize (for a while longer), if we are to realize the full potential of travel beyond our atmosphere: whether the long-term goals be focused on earth science, space science and astronomy, lunar resource-mining, training for long-duration spaceflight or actual travel to other planets. Our history up to this point has not been one of continuous investment and progress; it’s been more a function of episodic national political, economic and budgetary cycles with uncomfortably long gaps in our ability to send crews skyward. Perhaps these new private-public partnerships will break that pattern, with ULA, SpaceX, Blue Origin and NASA all looking to the stars concurrently with a diverse set of motives.

For fans of spaceflight, 2020 should be a great year for witnessing special events: the launches of crewed Starliner and Dragon, the launch of the Mars 2020 Rover, static-fire testing of the SLS, continuation of the SpaceX Starlink launch campaign, and ULA launching the mighty Delta IV Heavy with NROL missions.


Making Space Look Easy

Time and again during launch campaigns, the media representatives for SpaceX remind the public that “Space Is Hard.”   There is no question that spaceflight is immensely complex and full of risks.  That said, SpaceX continues to make spaceflight to Earth orbit seem easier and easier.    The most recent example was this past Tuesday, June 25, at 2:30am when the Falcon Heavy (FH) leapt off Pad 39A and executed what can be described fairly as one of the most complex satellite delivery missions ever:  Space Test Program 2.

For space enthusiasts viewing the launch at KSC or elsewhere down on the Cape, the launch was pure spectacle of the very best kind.   More than 2,500 visitors flocked to the Saturn V Center on Banana Creek with hopes of watching the FH head to orbit (and return) in the middle of the night from the closest vantage point for the general public.   They persisted through a 3-hour wait in the launch window, despite oppressive humidity.    SpaceX and the KSC Visitor Center made the wait all the more worthwhile by providing tunes, pre-launch commentary and catered food.   These FH gatherings provide an important public service, putting children and adults in close contact with what is currently the most audacious and creative spaceflight engineering on the planet.   These are also great and important opportunities for people from around the country (and the globe) with a wide range of perspectives to find and celebrate common ground — a staunch belief in and appreciation of the value of space science and engineering in what is otherwise a fractured political landscape.

At 2:30am, T-minus zero, the 27 Merlin engines on the core and twin boosters fired up and SpaceX once again demonstrated how ingenuity and determination can yield remarkable results including:

  • Launch of a FH using recycled boosters
  • Recovering two of the two boosters on land, adjacent to the launch site
  • Delivering with high-precision 24 satellites across a wide range of orbits
  • Cycling through 4 separate, second-stage burns to get the payload elements to the right  orbits
  • Almost succeeding in a Hail Mary recovery of the first-stage core hundreds of miles out to sea.
  • Catching part of the payload fairing at night

Simply put, the night launch of the FH was beautiful.

Once the FH cleared the pad and headed East, the sky was marked by a stunning, fast-moving, tear-drop of red-orange flame.  After a few seconds, the sounds of launch reached the Saturn V Center and viewers were treated to the truly eerie vibrations created by 27 Merlin engines as they throttle up to full thrust.  The sound is akin to dozens of tightly-coiled springs twanging at high-frequency with a deep base vibe underscoring it.   As the FH pushed downrange, from the ground it seems that the vehicle had turned into a meteorite streaking across the sky, looking as if it might be diving down toward the horizon.   During the immediate climb-out, it was possible to see the condensation cloud that washes over the vehicle as it crosses Max Q.  The sky was clear enough that folks on the ground could see with the naked eye:

  • Separation of the side boosters
  • Haunting, gaseous plumes created by the booster pitch-around and burn-back manuevers
  • Cutoff of the Merlin engines on the center core
  • The concurrent, high-altitude deceleration burns of the side boosters heading back to the Cape
  • The landing burns of the side boosters

No one was disappointed.  I suspect the United States Air Force, the prime sponsor of this mission, was equally satisfied with the outcome for it now has another, economical and reliable flight-proven option for getting various payloads to orbit.

Space is hard but it appears to be getting easier.

Heavy Stuff

Typically, I don’t tack commentary on top of previously published commentary, but what we witnessed with the Falcon Heavy launch was not typical.  It was revolutionary — and solid evidence that true (not subsidized) commercial spaceflight is right around the corner.  It is also evidence that we better believe Elon Musk when he says SpaceX is going to build a BFR for deep-space passenger and cargo loads.

Unless you have been living under a rock, we all saw what SpaceX and Falcon Heavy accomplished.  Succesful, stand-up (first-time) launch of a new vehicle.  Successful, simultaneous return-to-launch-site of two (previously flown) boosters.  A nearly successful return of the core first-stage (…missed it by that much).  Successful fairing deploy.  Successful orbit and orbital-escape burns for one of the most unique payloads ever.


If you were down on the Cape to see the Heavy go, you experienced one of the most energizing and optimism-fueling events in spaceflight since Atlantis made its final reach for the stars in 2011.  It was a party atmosphere — and SpaceX and Delaware North (the outsourced operator of KSC visitor sites) proved they know how to throw a party.  At the Saturn V center there was champagne.  Champagne flutes.  Delicious and endless empanadas, egg rolls, stir-fry, pasta and ice cream.  Bill Nye the Science Guy was onsite, narrating the event and talking up science literacy!  The crowd was representative of the U.S.:  blue, red, purple, from all part of the nation.  People who travelled 10-20-200-500-1000-and-3000 miles to bear witness.  “Make American Great Again” hat-wearers  right next to climate scientists.

We have in Falcon Heavy the backup we will need if SLS/Orion is further drawn out or cancelled (please, no)!  It is the bridge to BFR (assuming we can find a safe location from which to launch it).  It is evidence that the genius and vision that led to something as remarkable (and complex) as the Space Shuttle lives on.

HERE WE GO!  The SpaceX Falcon Heavy is at Pad 39A down on the Cape, ready to fly.  This moment has been a long-time coming and by that I mean the return of boosters truly capable of sending astronauts Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO).  The last U.S. rocket capable of doing that was the Saturn V that lofted Skylab in 1973.  NASA continues work on its next human-rated, heavy lift (“deep” space exploration) rocket — the SLS.  If we are lucky, we might see SLS and the Orion capsule launch astronauts beyond Earth orbit in 2023.  The trickle of funding that has barely kept the SLS\Orion alive is at constant risk of reduction or deletion.  At best, I think it’s 50-50 that SLS gets beyond its initial exploratory mission.  Kinda like the Energia system that launched the USSR’s shuttle.  As a nation, we won’t be able to afford it — or have the will to sustain it.

Falcon Heavy could be the vehicle that fills the gap between now and when SLS\Orion flies.  Or it may simply by default become the only option we are going to have for supporting human BEO missions for a long time to come.  SpaceX will need customers — and human-rated qualification for the Heavy and whatever capsule (Dragon Crew, presumably) it puts on top of the Heavy’s core booster — if it is going to ramp-up production of the Heavy and fine-tine it for human spaceflight.  Wouldn’t it be great if NASA considered using the Falcon Heavy for some of its science and exploratory missions?   Despite all the skepticism about commercial cargo and commercial crew, for-profit companies have achieved substantial leaps and bounds in the development of new flight hardware — yes, some very much derived from the Saturn program and, yes, very much funded by government agencies, a.k.a., customers.

With the coming launch of Falcon Heavy, for the first time since I was a grade-schooler, I really believe I will live to see human’s return to the moon.  Let’s see (and hope for) a nice, clean flight this coming week!

SpaceX-pletive Deleted

This week’s loss of a Falcon 9-FT (full-thrust version) on the pad at Cape Canaveral creates real problems for NASA and the ISS.  The vehicle exploded during fueling for a static-firing test of the 9 first stage engines, a dress-rehearsal in preparation for the actual launch of the rocket a few days later.  Rockets exploding during fueling is something that really shouldn’t happen these days, especially when the vehicle involved is supposed to be human-rated (safe for crewed flight),  lofting people into low earth orbit beginning in 2018.

The Xplosion on the pad points to: human error, a problem with the design and/or metallurgy of one or more fuel tanks and/or a problem with the design and mechanics of the fuel-loading system.  This is the second time in less than two years that a Falcon 9 has blown its top due to a problem with the fuel system.  The first time around, poorly manufactured steel struts caused a fuel tank component to break free in mid-flight, puncturing one of the fuel tanks and destroying the vehicle.  The Falcon 9 is supposed to begin bringing crewed Dragon capsules to ISS in the not-too-distant future and is supposed to be the part of the core of the Falcon Super Heavy vehicle that SpaceX will test in 2017.

A lot rides on finding and fixing the latest fault.  SpaceX had recently convinced the US Air Force that the Falcon is reliable and inexpensive enough for national security payloads.  As we heard just yesterday, SpaceX has given the USAF a seat at the investigative table.  How and when NASA grants the vehicle a human-safety rating will be interesting to see.  Right now, the launch vehicle has a potential failure rate (on pad and in-flight) much worse than the retired Space Shuttle.   In the meantime, Boeing and NASA are continuing to prepare vehicles for human-rated low earth orbit (and beyond in NASA’s case) for liftoff in 2018.

Taking a broad perspective on this, here’s a question:  “how do the Russians do it?”  It being highly-reliable human space flight.   Flight after flight of Soyuz “taxis” lofted into low earth orbit for decades to the Salyut station

, then the Mir and now the ISS without substantial fault or failure.  Obviously, the Soyuz technology has developed incrementally over a remarkably long period of time while SpaceX, Blue Origins, Orbital ATK and Virgin Galactic have put forward new designs and capabilities engineered from the ground-up (mostly).  I wonder if engineers at these firms ever could invite their Russian counterparts to sit at the table during failure analyses.  The transfer of knowledge and experience surely would be interesting.

In the meantime, it’s now 6 years since NASA and the U.S. ditched the shuttle.  If we are lucky, we may regain a human spaceflight capability in two more years.  Fingers-crossed.


Amazon’s Founder Delivers Something Special

Blue Origin, the nascent space-launch firm, enjoyed a milestone achievement yesterday when its New Shepard booster lofted a capsule to 330,000 feet and then returned to its launch site in an autonomous, on-target vertical descent.   This is a big leap forward toward reusable rockets that will carry humans and cargo to the edges of space and beyond at a fundamentally lower price-point per pound thanks to the recycle-ability of the booster and its main engines.

Blue Origin is the creation of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.

Fellow technologist and featurist, Elon Musk, has been attempting to achieve the same feat but with much larger and more powerful Falcon 9.X boosters capable of pushing people and packages to altitudes at or above Low Earth Orbit.   So far, the Falcon 9, a product of SpaceX, has come close (but no cigar) to successfully sticking a vertical landing after reaching the edge of space.  There’s next to no doubt that SpaceX will see that goal achieved in the next year or two.

All of this is good and demonstrates one of the key advantages of inviting tech entrepreneurs into the competition to deliver new, lower-cost modes for getting to space.

Next up for SpaceX and Blue Origin:  getting Human Space Flight ratings for their respective pressurized space capsules.

Now, check out this video of Blue Origin’s New Shepard getting it done!

Two Engine Out Blue

Yesterday, I came across a fascinating and hair-raising audio transcript from 1988 of NASA conducting a full-blown exercise in which a Space Shuttle enroute to orbit suffers a complex serious of failures and attempts to reverse course and return to its launch site.  There were three immediate contexts for this abort exercise:

  • The Challenger disaster in 1986, in which crew and craft were lost when in mid-ascent searing hot gases from a booster made it past protective seals, torching the shuttle’s main fuel tank and causing the vehicle to disintegrate.
  • The implementation post-Challenger of new hardware and flight software in the shuttle fleet to introduce a new abort mode called Contingency Abort.  A contingency abort is all about giving the crew a greater probability of survival when it is a given that the shuttle vehicle has no hope of making a controlled landing due to any series of failures or emergencies.  Prior to the Challenger disaster, no such crew-bailout capability existed — the Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort scenario had been the last, worst (most complex) option in the event of major problems during ascent.  Return to Launch Site is exactly what it is means:  in mid-flight, the shuttle turns around and begins rocketing back toward Kennedy Space Center to attempt a controlled landing.   Post-Challenger, mission controllers realized that there could be multiple RTLS scenarios where stuff happens and the shuttle is unable to produce the energy necessary to fly back home.  The Contingency Abort was added for just those circumstances in which a RTLS went bad:  if needed, the shuttle could assume a new flight profile allowing the crew to parachute away from the vehicle at a survivable altitude and speed.   As it so happened, the shuttle program concluded without experiencing a real RTLS or Contingency Abort.
  • The upcoming “return to flight” launch (STS-26) of Shuttle Discovery in 1988, getting the shuttle back into flight following the loss of Challenger.

Prior to the STS-26 launch, mission planners and controllers wanted to play out the contingency abort scenario in a full-blown exercise, with a real countdown, crew in their seats and mission controllers at their consoles — to see what might happen.    The audio transcript, which is available online, begins with a normal liftoff and  then unfolds as follows:

  • 40 seconds into the ascent, one of the redundant electrical systems on board the shuttle fails;  controllers and the shuttle commander agree in the moment that there is no need to alter the shuttle’s ascent program.
  • At approximately 80 seconds into the flight, the starboard main engine experiences an uncommanded shut down.  At this point in the ascent scenario, the loss of the engine leaves Discovery with insufficient energy to reach orbit; the crew and mission control have no choice but to prepare for a Return to Launch Site abort.   But before the RTLS sequence starts, the shuttle must jettison its booster rockets which happens at 130 seconds into the flight.
  • After the boosters are jettisoned, the shuttle makes a powered (rocket-powered) pitch-over (turn around) to change the direction of thrust from up (toward space) to down (toward Kennedy Space Center).  In this posture, it’s two remaining main engines continue to fire, drawing fuel from the giant orange tank still attached to the belly of the shuttle.  It will take a significant amount of time for the redirected main engines to stop the climb to orbit and begin accelerating the shuttle toward Florida.
  • In the STS-26 contingency abort scenario, the initial RTLS pitch-over goes great but after a minute the shuttle’s port main engine cuts out.  At this point, the Flight Director calls out “Two Engine Out Blue” and immediately asks the Flight Dynamics Officer “do we have any chance of getting the vehicle back (to a runway).  The immediate answer is “there is no way to get the shuttle to a safe landing.”
  • At this point, the newly-developed contingency abort scenario becomes the best, last option for the crew.  Voice traffic in Mission Control because constant as does the frequency of communications between Mission Control and the shuttle crew.  And the scenario worsens as the center (and last) main shuttle engine shuts down, leaving the unpowered shuttle attached to its large and very heavy external tank.  If the shuttle is to maintain sufficient energy to get to a safe altitude and location for the crew to bailout, it must now jettison its main fuel tank sooner than planned.  The audio communication traffic underscores this.
  • Within a few moments, the shuttle has separated from the main tank and the crew and flight software are trying to manage the flight profile of the shuttle to get the craft to a point approximately 197 miles east and north of Kennedy Space Center  — over the wide-open Atlantic Ocean.  That is where the crew will bailout (parachute drop).
  • The audio transcript suggests that shuttle crew resources are stretched to the limit by the accumulation of failures and rapidly changing flight plans.  At one point, mission control must repeatedly and urgently instruct the shuttle commander to pay more attention to the shuttle’s flight profile — to drop (pitch down) the nose of the shuttle substantially or else lose the energy necessary to get to a safe bailout point.
  • The shuttle crew successfully pitches down the craft’s nose. The shuttle then begins a serious of steep banking maneuvers to navigate to the planned RP — rescue point.  The crew is feeling 3+ G’s of force, much higher than experienced during normal descents but not debilitating.
  • At this point in the exercise, Mission Control is unable to make voice contact with the crew although flight telemetry (data) continues to be received uninterrupted.  Ultimately, mission controllers begin broadcasting “in the blind” in the hopes of getting some response from the crew.   (In the early years of the shuttle program, voice communications were susceptible to cutouts when the craft made steep turns that blocked the line of sight to its voice antenna.)  Voice communication is not regained before the end of the audio transcript which is very disconcerting.   I would like to think that the crew, working through this incredible challenge, had defaulted to flying the shuttle first and communicating last — prioritizing their attentional “bandwidth” to getting to the rescue point.

All in all, an interesting glimpse into both the way NASA prepares for contingencies and the extent of the space shuttle’s capabilities under worst-case circumstances.

New Horizons

Unless you live in a cave, you have by now heard something about the New Horizons deep space probe and its incredible success reaching across billions of miles of solar system to capture upclose images of Pluto and its moon, Charon, that were basically mind-blowing.  More on that in a minute.

If you’ve not seen or heard any of the mission FAQ’s that the New Horizons media team released this past week in conjunction with the space probe’s flyby of its target, check them out.  Here are a couple of my favorites:

* The accuracy (timing, speed and relative position) of the probe as it zoomed by Pluto\Charon, given that the craft was launched from planet Earth and traversed some 3 billion miles is akin to: (1) placing a basketball at the teeing ground of a golf range with an 80-miles distance to the hole;  (2) hitting a molecule off of that basketball; (3) having that molecule land in the hole.  Of course, the New Horizon’s team had the ability to make mid-flight, course corrections on route to the “hole” — something that golfers are not capable of doing though I certainly wish it were possible.  (My handicap in golf is astronomical).

* The spacecraft is the size and shape of a grand piano — so please picture a molecule shaped like a grand piano.

* Because Pluto is “way-the-hell-out-there,” the launch energy necessary to get New Horizons to Pluto on time was by far the greatest ever required and achieved for a deep space probe:  by comparison, 10 times the energy required to get a probe to Mars.

What is truly stunning about this journey, which ultimately involved hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and effort all for a flyby that lasted less than a few days, is the quality of the “reveal.”   Basically, Pluto appears on first (and only) pass to be a very dynamic place:  full of water ice mountains, long, pillowy plains of ice and dust formed from various frozen gases, with the prospect of geysers or the upwelling of warmer gases and liquids that reach the surface from a liquid sea below.

Planetary scientists working with very low-resolution, highly pixelated images of Pluto and some really good models of planetary development, had projected a landscape fairly similar to that that New Horizon’s is showing us today, though the monstrous water-ice mountains were not part of the modeled planet-scape.  Those planetary scientists who dared to imagine the geologic and chemical make-up of Pluto’s surface and the seas underneath should be feeling pretty good right now.  Also, we knew before New Horizons’ arrival that methane was venting from portions of the planet.  Now we know more precisely where on the surface the methane is coming from and perhaps soon we’ll understand better why the methane is there.

If you are wondering whether life might be present on Pluto, the answer after New Horizon’s flyby is a definite “possibly.” The surface, reaching -400F at times and with atmospheric pressures barely a sliver of Earth’s, is not a likely home for life.  The below surface seas could be another story.  Taking the very long view, about 5 billion years from now, our Sun will have evolved into a Red Giant, generating sufficient energy to warm up Pluto and perhaps provide just the right temperatures for the existing mix of chemical compounds to cook and stew and yield something that fits our definition of life.  If you happen to have a functioning cyro-sleep chamber, move it and yourself to Europa, climb in and set the alarm accordingly (5bn years from now, Earth may not be doing all that well being so close to a Red Giant.)

What’s are the key takeaways?

  • Science is amazing.
  • The U.S. system of educating scientists and engineers is the best there is (could be better, yes).  Just look at what we are capable of achieving.
  • Planetary/space science captures the imagination and draws young and older minds into the asking and answering of big and important questions about planetary science and why we exist.
  • More and more, everywhere we look — whether relatively close to home, or way out across interstellar space — the evidence grows and grows that life is happening somewhere beyond Earth orbit.
  • If you marvel at and value the news and knowledge coming back from New Horizons, The Hubble Space Telescope or any of our Mars orbiters or rovers, or the probes we’ve sent in the past decade or so to Jupiter (the Juno probe is enroute) and the Moon, let your elected representatives in Washington know you support funding for space science.