Looking to launch and preparing for transit…

As many of you probably heard, SpaceX’s launch of its Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) that was slated for early Saturday morning was aborted at literally the last second before launch. The abort was triggered by readings of excess pressure in one of the rocket’s engines. The problem was ultimately traced back to a faulty valve on one of the rocket engines which was replaced on Sunday. Now with everything supposedly right as rain, SpaceX looks forward to launching at the opening of the next possible launch window, which opens at 3:44am on Tuesday. As you may remember, back in December 2010, SpaceX became the first ever private company to launch into space; now it looks into sweetening the deal as it’s slated to become the first private company to dock with the ISS. This is a VERY good thing for the American space program. Despite flurries of protest and new ideas from Congress to limit the competition in space commercialization, SpaceX is doing exactly what President Obama hoped companies would do when he announced the space commercialization initiative back in 2008– beating the rest of the competition to the punch. Not that Obama is specifically backing or rooting for SpaceX, but this is exactly what the President wanted, competition fostering and driving innovation and accelerated success. I’ll have to wholeheartedly disagree with Congressmen who argue that competition breeds lackluster performance and unsafe equipment. Let’s face it, when going into space, there’s an inherent level of risk. Even NASA, the be-all, end-all of space-faring lost two (Columbia and Challenger) out of its five Space Shuttles, so it happens. But let’s examine this: Orbital Sciences, another company vying for NASA launch contracts, has already launched two NASA-funded missions (nearly $700 million) into the Pacific Ocean. Now, using the Congressional argument, we would have been locked into using Orbital Sciences and SpaceX would not have gotten federal subsidies or contracts to help get it to where it is today. Now to be honest, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX are trying to work on two different goals at the moment: Orbital Sciences is set on launching new satellites into space and SpaceX is focused on transporting crews and cargo, but you can see my point. If anything, competition forces greater concern over safety and ensuring success and greatly reduces the probability of project delays and going over budget. And if you don’t think that’s true, just look at how careful SpaceX was this weekend. As President Hoover once said, “Competition is not only the basis of protection to the consumer, but is the incentive to progress.”

Ultraviolet image of Venus’ clouds as seen by the Pioneer Venus Orbiter on February  5, 1979. Credit: spacedaily.com

Switching gears a bit, you may or may not have heard, but a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event is happening on the evening of  Tuesday, June 5, 2012: Venus will be transiting the Sun. What does that mean? Well what that means is that we (Earthlings) will be able to see Venus on the disk of the Sun. You may say to yourself: why is this so special, doesn’t Venus go around the Sun every year? Well yes, you’re right, Venus orbits the Sun once every 225 Earth days, but Venus’ orbit doesn’t exactly lie in the same plane as the rest of the planets– it’s off by what might seem a slight 3°. But since distances are so large in space– Earth is a whopping 93,000,000,000,000 miles from the Sun– that small angle means that Venus only crosses the line of sight between the Earth and the Sun twice (in events separated by eight years) every century. The last transit of Venus was back in 2004 (imaged below) and it won’t happen again until 2117. Now if you’d like to find out more about the transit, you can visit transitofvenus.org, they’ve got pretty much everything you need to know, including what the transit is, where and how you can see it, a short video summary of the event and why it’s important, and even a recipe for a nice cosmic cocktail to enjoy responsibly while you view the transit! You can also check out thesuntoday.org or NASA’s official page, which have lots of stuff including information about NASA’s planned live feed of the transit from the Keck telescopes in Hawaii and maps of transit events in your area!

The entire June 2004 transit of Venus is captured in a composite photograph composed of 11 separate images taken at 30 minute intervals. Photographs by Fred Espenak, MrEclipse.com

Jeremiah Horrocks, an English astronomer, predicted the first ever observed transit of Venus back in 1639– contradicting the great Johannes Kepler, who said that Venus would miss transiting the Sun– and then observed it using a telescope. In fact, the transit of Venus is very important historically– it’s one of the ways we calculated the size of our solar system. You see, when you have two observers watching the transit from two locations on Earth, each sees a distinct path (red and blue below) of Venus across the Sun.  The slight difference in time that Venus takes, moving from edge to edge, can mathematically unlock the distance from Earth to the Sun, and thus the size of our solar system. In fact, after realizing this, the great English astronomer Edmond Halley (of comet fame) greatly encouraged countries to send expeditions around the globe to time future transits of Venus across the sun. Explorers and scientists faced great peril and set out all over the world for the transits of the 17th (1761 and 1769) and 18th (1874 and 1882) centuries.

Two observers from different locations on Earth will see Venus trace different paths across the Sun. The difference in time of the transits between the two paths can be used to calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun and thusly the size of the solar system. Credit: transitofvenus.org


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3 Responses to Looking to launch and preparing for transit…

  1. BaseballBry says:

    Ian, awesome post! Question…. what’s the affiliation between Orbital and SpaceX? They’re both in the private space sector now and working towards different goals, but do they both get funding from NASA for their projects? Keep it up!

    • astroian says:

      So there’s really no affiliation between Orbital Sciences and SpaceX other than they are both NASA contractors…or at least hopefuls– so yes they do both receive funding from NASA, but from different parts of the NASA budget.

      Orbital works a lot more with rockets and heavy payload launches– for instance, they run NASA flight facilities at Wallops and White Sands where they build and launch the sounding rockets like I worked on. They’re also working on the “big suckers”, aka the huge lift-capacity rocket boosters to replace the old Saturn V rockets that were used during Apollo; they’re focused on launching very large, one-time use rockets with payloads intending to go deep into space. SpaceX, on the other hand, is advancing as part of the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) that targets replacing the Space Shuttle program with a another reusable launch vehicle to transport astronauts and cargo into space and return them safely.

      I don’t think they’d ever really be competitors, each is in its own little niche. Right now, Orbital Sciences is kind of working with NASA to resurrect/replace the aborted Constellation program launch vehicle with its new Antares rocket and SpaceX is competing with other CCP contenders like Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origin.

    • astroian says:

      To better answer your question, here is a quote from a recent article on Space.com: “SpaceX is one of two private firms receiving NASA funding to develop robotic cargo spacecraft (the other is Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.). SpaceX is also competing for a NASA contract to carry crew, as well as cargo, aboard Dragon.”


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