Another Crash, an Almost-Launch, and Some Sweet Mars Travel Posters | Vol. 2 / No. 29

A Proton-M in 2008. Photo: Flickr user Alex Lane, CC BY 2.0
A Proton-M in 2008. Photo: Flickr user Alex Lane, CC BY 2.0

Another Bad Week

Russian tech had another bad week, following the previous week’s failed ISS resupply mission with another loss at Roscosmos, this time a Mexican communications satellite on a Proton-M. While the Proton-M is launched very frequently, it isn’t the most reliable: according to this list, since it first flew in 2001, there have been eighty-nine launches of the successor to the Proton-K, and, including this week’s events, there have been nine complete and one partial failure. Seven of those have been since 2010. No matter how you look at it, that’s a failure rate of over ten percent. The latest, another third-stage problem, was almost one year ago to the day. While the payload did make it high enough that it’s likely to simply burn up in the atmosphere — the problem seems to have occurred eight and a half minutes into the launch — CNN is reporting that any surviving pieces may fall on China, who have been notified. Check out Spaceflight Now or Spaceflight Insider for more on the story.

In other news, apparently there’s a spot on the ocean floor that’s the final resting place of over a hundred and sixty spacecraft. Near Point Nemo (the farthest point from any major land mass), it’s a fairly safe place for the remains of spaceships to crash into without harming humans. Gizmodo has more.

The Planetary Society's Lightsail-1; Photo: The Planetary Society
The Planetary Society’s Lightsail-1; Photo: The Planetary Society


The Planetary Society is finally getting another chance to test out a solar sail. In 2005, their first attempt, Cosmos 1, failed to reach orbit when the Russian Volna rocket it was being carried on malfunctioned. But time heals all wounds, and this week the LightSail-1 is hitching a ride as a secondary payload aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V, which is carrying the secretive unmanned space place X-37B as its primary payload. The launch is scheduled for No Earlier Than (NET) May 20, at 10:45am EDT. You can check out the LightSail-1’s itinerary here at The Planetary Society, and watch the whole thing live on Wednesday morning at their Mission Control Center.

In related news, Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye (yes, that Bill Nye) took to Kickstarter this week to help fill a budget gap in the LightSail-2 mission. Of course, the internet being what it is, they reached their goal of $200,000 in the first 24 hours, and as of today (with 39 days left in the campaign) they’re at over half a million dollars. Seriously, it’s such a cool cause, and you can get a LightSail patch for only $20! Go check it out, and support citizen science.

Mars Colonization and Tourism Association SpaceX
Mars Colonization and Tourism Association SpaceX


This week in SpaceX news, Spaceflight Now is reporting that the company’s Falcon 9 rocket has been officially certified to launch NASA’s “Category 2” science missions. NASA’s categories are a combination of risk and cost analysis, so essentially with Category 1 and 2 clearance, SpaceX can now launch any high-risk craft up to $250million in expected lifetime costs, any medium-risk craft up to $1billion, and any low-risk craft at all. There are currently only three rockets that meet Category 3 clearance — the Atlas V, Delta 2, and Pegasus XL rockets —  and one can expect the company to pursue that clearance level either with the Falcon 9 or with the soon-t0-debut Falcon Heavy next year. The Category 2 level of certification clears the way for the launch of the Jason-3 ocean topography mission expected to take place in July. Spaceflight Now has more on the story.

And in other SpaceX news, check out these gorgeous travel posters released this week by the company. They’re on Flickr, and, like all images produced by SpaceX, they’re in the public domain.

Self-Driving (and Crashing) Cars

This week Google announced that its self-driving cars would be on the roads (in small numbers, in Mountain View, California) this summer. They’ll have supervisors, and won’t be able to go faster than 25mph, but it’s just another step toward teaching these self-drivers how to operate in the real world, so we can have robot chauffeurs and not worry about Uber’s underemployed “contractors” and still not break the bank to get a lift. On the other hand, it’ll probably reveal the kinks in the system that have yet to be worked out: as Gizmodo reported earlier this week, of the fifty driverless cars on the roads this year, four were in accidents. All were minor, and, being fair, two of those were while humans were driving them, but still — 2 in 50 is 4%, and that’s a lot higher than the national rates. Still, the good thing about computers is that if you fix a problem it stays fixed, so when the software corrects for the errors that cause a certain kind of crash, that’s it for that kind of crash. Unlike humans, who’ll go on doing the same dumb things over and over because it hasn’t killed them yet. I, for one, look forward to our four-wheeled overlords.

Cuba’s Cancer Vaccine

One of the peculiarities of the US shutting itself off from Cuba for half a century has been the difference in medical developments in both countries. Take for instance this story over at Wired, in which it comes to light that Cuba has had a fairly effective “vaccine” to fight lung cancer — mostly because so many Cubans smoke that it became worthwhile to spend money on developing something. Now, according to the story, scientists and businesses are looking to get that for Americans. It’s an odd tale of social isolation and medical innovation: check it out at Wired.

Best of the Rest

There were a ton of things I couldn’t get to this week, mostly because I’ve been at a conference (On medieval studies. In Kalamazoo.) since Wednesday. So here they are, in no particular order:

I’ll leave you with a beautiful blue Martian sunset, taken by Curiosity at the close of its 956th Martian day (April 15, 2015).

Because sunsets on the red planet are blue; photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M Univ.
Because sunsets on the red planet are blue; photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Texas A&M Univ.

That’s all for today. Don’t forget to “like” us on Facebook, and follow me on twitter at @TWITomorrow. Have a great week.

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