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A (Difficult) Day in the Solar System

Posted By Bill Dunford

30-10-2014 22:05 CDT

Topics: Cassini, Titan, the Sun, spacecraft, Chang'E program, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory), Saturn, solar observing spacecraft, Saturn's rings, commercial spaceflight, Rosetta and Philae, pretty pictures, Opportunity, comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Mars Exploration Rovers, Earth, Mars, International Space Station

October 28, 2014 was a bad day at the launch pad. People in the space industry will sometimes use that euphemism to describe a catastrophic failure during a rocket launch. That's exactly what happened on Tuesday when a privately built Antares rocket carrying a crew-less cargo craft exploded shortly after liftoff. Both in person and online, crowds watched in shock as a fireball, followed by a gut-wrenching shock wave, ripped the air. 

No one was hurt. But almost 5,000 pounds of cargo was lost, including supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station, as well as scientific experiments built by professionals and student teams. The incident is a setback for many individual careers, and possibly for the growing commercial space industry. You can dive into details about the incident here and here.

For anyone interested in exploration, it was a deeply disappointing day. No one who supports space travel likes a reminder of how difficult and dangerous it remains. Still, a little perspective is in order. A setback is a setback, but we are still witnessing one of the most exciting eras of exploration in human history.

Every once in a while I like to scan the online archives to find pictures taken by humanity's far-flung fleet of robotic spacecraft, images that are all taken on the same day. Even on difficult days like October 28...maybe especially on days like that...it's an instructive exercise.

Within about 24 hours before and after the rocket explosion, amazing things were taking place all across the solar system. In fact, within a day there were not one but two successful launches, including another space station supply run that had already been planned.

Cargo Ship Makes a Call

NASA

Cargo Ship Makes a Call
A Russian Progress 57 cargo ship carrying three tons of food and other supplies arrives at the International Space Station on October 29, 2014.

Throughout the day's events, the six people currently living on board the space station were never in danger. They could watch the world spin below, confident in the additional supply missions already underway or in the planning stages. (Did you know you can watch too?)

Blue Sunrise

NASA / Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center / Bill Dunford

Blue Sunrise
An automatic camera aboard the International Space Station allowed viewers on the web to watch live as the sun rose over the Indian Ocean on October 28, 2014. Some image artifacts have been removed.

It doesn't stop there. A constellation of great space-based observatories constantly circle the Earth, staring deep into space. The Solar Dynamics Observatory keeps a constant watch on the sun. At almost the very moment of the explosion, it captured this view of our living star.

Shine On

NASA / SDO

Shine On
The sun as observed from the Earth-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on October 28, 2014. An especially active region of sunspots is visible near the lower right part of the disc.

On the same day, an experimental Chinese spacecraft was sailing around the far side of the moon, testing the technologies needed to return a lunar sample to the Earth. Along the way, it glimpsed a truly extraordinary view. 

Earth and the Moon from Chang'e 5 T1

CAST

Earth and the Moon from Chang'e 5 T1
The Chang'e 5 test vehicle captured this beautiful view of Earth over the far side of the Moon on October 28, 2014.

Meanwhile, at Mars there were six robotic missions exploring in orbit and on the ground. At a giant crater called Endeavour, the Opportunity rover surveyed the scene. It was a fairly ordinary day...if you can call it ordinary that the rover is now nearly 4,000 harsh Martian days into a mission that would have been considered a success if it had lasted 90.

NASA / JPL

"Just" Another Day on Mars
The rim of Endeavour Crater, Mars, as seen by one of the Opportunity rover's hazard avoidance cameras (left) and navigation camera (right) on October 28, 2014, which was the 3825th Martian day of the robotic geologist's 90-day mission.

On the other side of the planet, the Curiosity rover was continuing its own explorations in the dramatic landscapes of Gale Crater. 

Late Martian Afternoon

NASA / JPL / Bill Dunford

Late Martian Afternoon
The Mars Curiosity rover imaged a nearby rocky ridge on October 29, 2014.

Far deeper in the sky, the Cassini spacecraft was spinning through its long, looping, silent dance with Saturn and its moons.

The Sixth Planet

NASA / JPL / SSI

The Sixth Planet
Cassini caught this view of Saturn on October 28, 2014 at a distance of about 2,545,700 kilometers (1,581,800 miles).

Cloud World

NASA / JPL / SSI / Emily Lakdawalla

Cloud World
Saturn's moon Titan as seen by the Cassini spacecraft on October 27, 2014

As if all this weren't enough, these events happened to coincide with another unprecedented adventure: the Rosetta mission was preparing to land the first-ever probe on the surface of a comet within a few short weeks. Just days before, it was mapping the surface of the comet in stunningly fine detail, uncovering the secrets of a small world that had just flown in from the dark outer reaches of the solar system.

The Face of a Comet

ESA / Rosetta / NavCam

The Face of a Comet
The intricate surface of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as observed by Rosetta's NavCam on October 26, 2014. This mosaic of four images covers an area of about 1200 x 1350 meters. It was released on October 29.

Given people's need, this apparently unquenchable urge, to see what lies over the horizon, it seems unlikely that any one setback will stop us. I'm pretty sure that another Antares, or a craft very like it, will stand on a launch pad again. It will keep the crowds breathless during the last agonizing seconds of the countdown. As it disappears into the sky on a perfect column of flame, they will cheer.

Antares

NASA/Joel Kowsky

Antares
The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard, is seen on launch Pad-0A during sunrise, Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014, at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Two days later, the vehicles were destroyed in an explosion soon after liftoff. However, on several other occasions similar rockets flew successfully, and hopeful pre-launch moments like this one will be repeated many times.
 
See other posts from October 2014

 

Read more blog entries about: Cassini, Titan, the Sun, spacecraft, Chang'E program, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory), Saturn, solar observing spacecraft, Saturn's rings, commercial spaceflight, Rosetta and Philae, pretty pictures, Opportunity, comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Mars Exploration Rovers, Earth, Mars, International Space Station

Comments:

Bob Ware: 10/30/2014 11:22 CDT

Well said.

aspaceman: 10/31/2014 07:30 CDT

Thanks, as if I wasn't inspired by the space missions enough!

Handee: 10/31/2014 08:43 CDT

Bad days are probably essential in the long run, I think.

Stephen: 11/02/2014 04:17 CST

"For anyone interested in exploration, it was a deeply disappointing day." Duh, come again? Just exactly what has the Antares accident got to do with exploration, the space sort or otherwise? It was shipping a bunch of supplies to the ISS. If that counts as (space) exploration then a helicopter doing a supply run to a North Sea oil rig is also doing exploration. Aviation exploration. is a rocket boosting a new communications or weather satellite into terrestrial orbit also be filed under "exploration"? Invoking the "exploration" meme even for flights of a patently NON-exploratory sort risks having that term degenerate into meaninglessness, which would be helpful to nobody, least of all genuine space exploration. People need to get a grip and a sense of perspective. Space flight needs to become more routine so it can happen more often for a lower cost and go to more places more often. But that necessarily means that most flights will have nothing whatsoever to do with space exploration, just as most aircraft journeys no longer do.. The Antares exploration was a tragedy for routine spaceflight. It is also a tragedy for non-governmental spaceflight and for all those who lest experiments or supplies in the blast. But it is NOT a tragedy for space exploration, which will go on regardless of the Antares accident.

Bob Ware: 11/02/2014 01:37 CST

@Stephen: " "For anyone interested in exploration, it was a deeply disappointing day." Duh, come again? ... " You missed the point. I'm into space exploration and that rocket could have been carrying a spacecraft of some type that was to explore, not just cargo to resupply the ISS for research. I did not have cargo on that vehicle but it was a bad day for me just the same. It was a huge loss. Orbital will figure what went wrong and they will fix it. NASA had much worse beginnings than the commercial sector is having. The commercial sector is actually doing a lot better than NASA did in the early days leading into Mercury. In the future unfortunately we will have losses again because no system is ever perfectly made, including exploration vehicles. Look at LightSail for example. It's almost flight time and we are finding issues that are being fixed on the fly. That's cutting it close. We thought it was perfect and it is anything but. If you don't try new things and occasionally fail then you are not doing new very well, if at all.

Stephen: 11/03/2014 04:15 CST

@Bob ware "I'm into space exploration" Good. So am I. "that rocket could have been carrying a spacecraft of some type that was to explore" A Boeing jet which ferries tourists and business people from London to New York is equally capable of carrying explorers and exploratory vehicles. Does that mere possibility thereby make every Boeing jet, and every flight they make an icon in the annals of exploration? "Orbital will figure what went wrong and they will fix it." Naturally or they won't be able to stay in business. Customers will migrate to more reliable vendors "NASA had much worse beginnings than the commercial sector is having." Trying to excuse the Antares accident by pointing the finger at NASA's record back in the early days of the space program is like the FAA trying to excuse an air crash in 2014 by pointing the finger at the Wright Brothers' accident record. Rocket science is no longer new and untested technology. It has been around for decades. Its products should not still be blowing up on (or slightly off) the launch pad. If we expected aircraft to periodically blow up on takeoff, how many people would be using them? "we are finding issues that are being fixed on the fly" Fixing issues "on the fly" is all very well for test flights. It is less excusable for the non test variety. Doing so merely offers greater opportunities for things to go KA-BOOM.

Bob Ware: 11/03/2014 07:03 CST

@Stephen - Regarding my comment, "NASA had much worse beginnings than the commercial sector is having." ... I had simply meant (sorry, not well clarified when I wrote that) that we had come a long way and that Orbital had this one accident with this vehicle. that indicates they are doing the job well. Occasionally accidents/failures happen. Rockets and commercial jets are not in the same league. Material stresses based upon fuel/oxidizers and tank materials are not the same from an aircraft to a spacecraft/rocket. Therefore the aircraft is more reliable in different aspects than a rocket/spacecraft. The two cannot be compared.

Stephen: 11/04/2014 09:05 CST

@Bob Ware "Rockets and commercial jets are not in the same league. Material stresses based upon fuel/oxidizers and tank materials are not the same from an aircraft to a spacecraft/rocket." First of all, would that not suggest that rockets (commercial or otherwise) need to be held to more stringent standards than jets (commercial or otherwise)? In particular, fixes on the fly would seem more likely to produce a KA-BOOM with a rocket than with a jet due to the greater opportunity for the "fix" to go awry in a catastrophic way. That would suggest that greater care needs to be taken when fixing problems with rockets than when fixing jets Secondly, a jet fully loaded with aviation fuel is as much of a flying bomb as a rocket , as 9/11 so dramatically demonstrated. Unfortunately, when things go awry with a passenger jet safety marshals cannot end the crisis by pushing a self-destruct button even though they will quite readily blow up an unmanned rocket. One day (hopefully) Antares rockets will be carrying people to the ISS. Will they still need to carry self-destruct systems for safety marshals to activate if something goes awry?

Bob Ware: 11/05/2014 08:13 CST

@Stephen - Hi. Rockets are held to high standards but we can only do so much. The way the tank materials, for example, behave under those extreme temperatures does not have the same stress factors as warmer fuels/oxidizers as a commercial aircraft would. Sure both can explode with a large destructive force but being able to lessen the destructive effect of a failure by implementing standards really can't be done. A rocket is basically a pressurized bomb with a controlled (directional) blast which we call thrust. It also can be described as a gas tank with people on top. It is a mighty big gas tank at that compared to a vehicle with some gas tanks, airplane for example. You can't fix a rocket on the fly, like a small spacecraft like LightSail. Any change to a rocket is going to have a ripple effect through the vehicle and you need to follow that effect all the way through. If you changed out a fuel tanks material for another did you check out the weight difference effect for flight, fuel effects on the new material, temperature effects on the material, center of mass of the entire vehicle and so on? It's not really that simple a thing to do. There are a lot of factors to consider. Regulations applied to an aircraft will not work for a rocket so you cannot legislate safety in by tighter rules. Materials behavior is why safety legislation won't work. Safety in rockets has to be designed in. You can dictate "do this" but it can't always be done because of the nature of rocket and associated material behavior. You can set strict guidelines but that cannot guarantee safety as it could to a certain level with an aircraft. So to answer you question clearly, No rockets should not be held to more stringent standards. Over all they work well enough now. As I see the purpose of Range Safety the idea is good. Right or wrong, as I see it, the idea of Range Safety is to air burn the fuel/oxidizers to minimize the fire spread of an impact. Smart thinking.

Bob Ware: 11/05/2014 08:28 CST

Secondly - the higher it is the better when RSO transmits the destruct signal for the sake of the people on the ground. Rockets do carry the destruct packages. The 51-L mission had the RSO transmit the destruct signal to the SRB's so that one of them would not impact on land. When the private sector flys crews they had better have a destruct package on that vehicle. If rocket flight is not an acceptable risk to some one, then they need not become astronauts. The last crew (Virgin) were aware of the risks, which to them, were acceptable or they would not have flown their company spacecraft on that and all other flight tests before. I have always wanted to be an Astronaut/Pilot since I was 7 but fate in my case dictated otherwise. GRRR!

Bob Ware: 11/05/2014 08:50 CST

Finally - I believe that you and I do want the same thing... an incredibly well built rocket and spacecraft so we don't have to deal with failures of any magnitude. You know all to well that a rocket failure is expensive at any portion of the mission in all capacities... cost through propulsion... orbital mechanics and so on. One blown up rocket is far worse than one major airports TRACON being taken out by a tornado. Yeah, you and I do want the same thing ... an insanely great safety record! With Gemini we got lucky 9 out of 9 times (1 & 2 automated test articles) +7 seven with Mercury.

Stephen: 11/06/2014 03:39 CST

@Bob Ware Thanks for the info. "No rockets should not be held to more stringent standards." Then don't be surprised if one day a rocket explodes with 10 or 20 people onboard the outcome is all hell breaking loose down on the ground; and it will get worse if the board of inquiry afterwards finds the loss of life might have been prevented had more stringent safeguards/maintenance standards etc been kept. "If rocket flight is not an acceptable risk to some one, then they need not become astronauts." Is that what airlines and airliner manufacturers tell their clientele? If you find flying an unacceptable risk, don't fly with us? If playing Russian roulette with airliner passenger lives would be unacceptable to the FAA and others, why should rocket passengers be treated differently? You may think it is, but I suspect many of the public at large will not. Consider what happened to the Shuttle after the Challenger and Columbia disasters: the US government shut down the Shuttle program for months. Such a shutdown may be OK for NASA, but for a commercial operator such an ban may cripple them (unless they have multiple rocket models available). Yet a ban is probably what would happen, especially if the loss of life were considerable. I cannot foresee a situation where the operator would be allowed to keep flying the same kind of rocket, least of all until any investigation was complete. "I believe that you and I do want the same thing... an incredibly well built rocket and spacecraft so we don't have to deal with failures of any magnitude." Agreed. But such a thing requires uniformly HIGH standards. "+7 seven with Mercury" There were only six Mercury flights. Deke Slayton was found to have a medical problem and never flew a Mercury mission.

Bob Ware: 11/08/2014 02:09 CST

"+7 seven with Mercury" --- Oops. You are right. That's embarrassing! I knew that also. Sheesh! You and I do really want the same thing in safety but as for how to obtain that level it looks as if we'll not agree on the how. That high level is really need though. A lost airplane or rocket at anytime does no good for anyone.

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