Philae Wakes Up, NASA’s LDSD Tests Well, and Lightsail Deploys | Vol. 2 / No. 33

Philae wakes up! Photo: ESA / Roestta
Philae wakes up! Photo: ESA / Roestta

Philae Wakes Up

Back in November we were all a little saddened by the brief operating life of the first craft to land on a comet, ESA’s Philae lander. Dropped onto the surface of comet 67-P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, it bounced higher than expected rather than grappling to the surface, and ended up coming to a rest in a fissure, its solar panels hidden from sunlight. This gave researchers just hours to complete a lot of complicated science before its batteries ran out and it went to sleep. Well, good news: in the past 24 hours Rosetta has called home. As of yesterday, the 13th of June, Rosetta had sent home around 300 data packets — but even better, it appears the lander has been awake for a little while. The memory banks have around 8000 packets of data in them, and ESA engineers and working on retrieving them right now. According to DLR Project Manager Dr. Stephan Ulamec, “Philae is doing very well: It has an operating temperature of -35ºC and has 24 Watts available… The lander is ready for operations.” What a great way to start a week. Keep your eyes glued to ESA’s Rosetta page for more up-to-date information as it becomes available. 


Recovering the LDSD test vehicle; Photo: US Navy, CC BY 2.0
Recovering the LDSD test vehicle; Photo: US Navy, CC BY 2.0

…It Went Okay.

This week NASA once again tested its “flying saucer” deceleration testbed, the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator or LDSD, thirty-four miles above Hawaii — and once again, to mixed results. As last time, the craft was successfully lifted to a height of 120,000 feet by a helium balloon, at which point a rocket carried it at mach 3 to 180,000 feet up, where Earth’s atmosphere best mimics the super-thin atmosphere on Mars. At that point the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, or SIAD, a tough inflatable ‘doughnut’ around the edge of the saucer designed to increase drag and slow the craft down deployed successfully. Unfortunately, as with the previous test, the parachute did not survive long enough to do its job. The test from last June caused the scientists to switch designs, from the Supersonic Disc Sail parachute to the Supersonic Ringsail parachute, which, it had been hoped, would better be able to handle the massive stresses of decelerating a heavy craft from supersonic speeds in an atmosphere. But even if the parachute failed, the data was good: as LDSD Project Manager Mark Adler said following the test, “we got what we came for, new and actionable data on our parachute design.” More than that, this test confirms two of the deceleration technologies — the SIAD and the supersonic ballutes — that will be necessary to land heavier craft (and eventually people) on the red planet. Check out NASA’s press release for more.

Lightsail deployed! Photo:  The Planetary Society, CC-BY-NC 3.0
Lightsail deployed! Photo: The Planetary Society, CC-BY-NC 3.0


Last week I told you that we were just waiting to hear whether or not the Planetary Society’s off-again-on-again orbiter and solar sail testbed Lightsail-1 had managed to deploy her sails, and as you can see from the photograph above, she did! They got a few more photos out of the little craft that could before it locked up for what seems like the final time. But with all mission objectives completed, it sets the stage for the planned 2016 mission, already crowdfunded to the tune of $800,000 (go here to add more to the pot and get your own square cm of sail, mission patch, commemorative pin, and more!), in which the craft will actually try to use its sails to maneuver in space. Check out the Planetary Society’s Lightsail Mission Control for the latest.

Oculus Overshadows Apple

This week, Apple’s developer conference was largely overshadowed in tech news by the official announcement out of Facebook-owned Oculus VR that their long-awaited VR headset, the Oculus Rift, is ready for market. Apple’s WWDC (worldwide developer conference) was widely derided for a long list of so-called “innovations” ripped from the playbooks of their competitors. Meanwhile Microsoft, in a major coup, has managed to get the Oculus Rift to be packaged with an XBox controller and run natively on Windows 10. There are games seemingly ready to go with it, and even if you don’t like the XBox controller, Oculus has made some pretty amazing controllers of its own, the Oculus “Touch,” which looks kind of amazing in its own right. Check out the Verge for more.

Elon Musk’s Space Internet

SpaceX founder and strangely not-evil supervillain Elon Musk filed with the FCC this week in advance of tests next year for a plan to blanket the Earth with internet coverage from space. The plan calls for up to four thousand satellites to orbit the Earth and provide a global network that would eventually bring internet access to the four and a half billion people still without it. Others have tried before — Richard Branson, Bill Gates, and more — but if anyone can make it work, a Google-backed Elon Musk seems like the best bet to me. Tests would begin next year, with a five-year-to-operation schedule. Check out the Washington Post for more.


It’s been more than three months since SpaceX’s first launch toward L1, a little gravitational eddy a million miles from Earth where satellites can comfortably rest between us and the sun, and the satellite in question has arrived. This week we received word that NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite, the Deep Space Climate Observer designed to study the solar wind and provide us with warning of incoming solar storms, has made it. It’ll also be pointing a couple of instruments back at the Earth to study ozone levels in the atmosphere. Check out NOAA’s website for more.

Best of the Rest

This was a huge week for news, so here’s a pile of things I couldn’t get to:

I’ll leave you with another video by the wonderful folks at Kurz Gesagt, part two of their first video on the Fermi Paradox.

That’s all for today. Don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Have a great week.