orbital sciences


In last week’s episode of It’s Okay To Be Smart, I talked about why the moon orbits the Earth. If you haven’t watched it yet, give it a look. I’ll wait.

There’s some pretty interesting astrophysics keeping the moon orbiting Earth and not getting gobbled up by the sun, eh. But I left one thing out of that video. The moon doesn’t really orbit the Earth. Strictly speaking, the moon and the Earth orbit each other.  

Just like the Earth exerts a gravitational force on the moon, the moon and its mass are “tugging” right back on us. As a result, the two bodies are actually orbiting a point in between, called the barycenter.

If you’ve ever watched pairs figure skating, you’ve seen this in action. When spinning through this move, called a “death spiral”, the two skaters are actually rotating around a barycenter in between their two centers of mass:

This is true of any two orbiting objects, whether it’s a pair of binary stars, a planet and its star, or a planet and its moon(s). You can think of it just like a playground see-saw, with the masses and distance between the two orbiting objects determining where the “balance” point is. 

The Earth/Moon barycenter is about 1,700 km beneath the crust:

Jupiter, despite being more than five times farther from our central star than Earth is, is so massive that its barycenter lies outside of the Sun:

The Earth-Sun barycenter, on the other hand, is effectively in the center of the sun. Our mass is just peanuts compared to that of that huge burning ball of hot gas:

When two orbiting bodies have similar masses and are relatively close to each other, it can be tough to figure out who’s orbiting whom. This is one reason that some astronomers think Pluto and its moon Charon are more of a double-dwarf-planet system:

Scientists use the see-saw physics of barycenters to study planets in distant solar systems, observing these wobbly waltzes to discover planets that we can’t see with telescopes.

The dig deeper into this cool bit of astrophysics, check out this article from my friend Chris Crockett. And cue the Dead or Alive

Would you blast off to space to live aboard the International Space Station? With “Life in Orbit” presented by the Canada Aviation and Space Museum (CASM) and the Canadian Space Agency, you’ll soon get to experience the life of astronauts in space!

Coming soon to CASM! Stay tuned! #museumday #CSAinspires

More information: http://casmuseum.techno-science.ca/en/whats-on/exhibition-life-in-orbit-international-space-station.php

Credit: CSA’s Facebook Account


Here’s the orbital period of our solar system’s 8 major planets (how long it takes each to travel around the sun). Their size is to scale and their speed is accurate relative to Earth’s. The repetition of each GIF is proportional to their orbital period. Mercury takes less than 3 months to zoom around Sol, Neptune takes nearly 165 years.  

Every single satellite orbiting Earth, in a single image.

High above us, tens of thousands of kilometers above our heads, there are orbiting graveyards. They are filled with satellites that have burned through their functional lives, now “buried” in space. The graveyards are filled for a reason: A dead satellite is a dangerous one.

On the surface of Earth, gravity pulls debris and trash to the ground, where it remains still. In space, gravity gives the same pull, but objects in orbit are always falling. With nothing to stop them, these objects fly around the Earth at astonishing speeds. Travelling 45 times the speed of sound, the debris is deadly. 

Graveyard orbits are orbits significantly distanced from wherever the satellites were operating before they died. Many functional satellites spend their lives about 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) above the planet, in a geostationary orbit - moving in sync with the rotation of the Earth, such that it always stays directly above the same spot.

By disposing of the dead satellites, we hope to lower the risk of collisions between them, which would create even more debris. According to one prediction, the accumulation of debris might get so bad that we couldn’t safely navigate through it, effectively locking us out of space - a gloomy condition known as Kessler syndrome.

BREAKING: Orbital Sciences’ Antares Rocket Explodes After Liftoff

Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket exploded shortly after liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia on Tuesday as part of a private cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station.

Aside from damage to the launch pad and the launch vehicle itself, no injuries have been reported, according to NASA TV. The launch occurred at 6:22 p.m. EDT, exploding just seconds after liftoff.

Watch NASA’s Press Conference Live At 9 P.M. EDT Here: http://www.penny4nasa.org/2014/10/28/orbital-science-antares-rocket-explodes-after-liftoff/

Here’s your far-out space science for the day. 

The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) is an X-Ray telescope that will study black holes, supernovae explosions, and other cosmic sources of nuclear energy. The huge deployable mast is used to create the long focal lengths necessary for X-Ray spectroscopy. On the far end of the boom are the grazing incidence mirrors (read: the lens) that focus the X-Rays onto the focal plane dectectors that are in the main body of the spacecraft. The spacecraft bus is currently being built and tested by Orbital Sciences

For more info, see:



Marking the start of their second operational resupply mission to the International Space Station, Orbital Sciences successfully launched their Antares rocket this afternoon. Liftoff occurred at 12:52pm from pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The Cygnus spacecraft on the Orb 2 mission is named after astronaut Janice Voss, who passed away in 2012.

One of two companies contracted to resupply the orbiting outpost, Orbital Sciences is based in Dulles, Virginia, and has significant experience in the aerospace industry. Including building satellites, they also operate the Pegasus and Minotaur launch vehicles.


A HUGE ROCKET JUST EXPLODED…. and it’s going to be OK.  Just a reminder that space exploration isn’t easy.

Watch the video here: 


The rocket was an Antares Rocket designed by Orbital Sciences Corporation. It was being launched at Wallops Island, VA.  Next time you hear people talking about how much money NASA spends on rockets compared to “COTS” commercial rockets…. remember that there’s a reason. Man-rating something requires an incredible amount of research and development.  Unmanned systems are made with the same safety requirements as manned systems.  Just be aware that a rocket isn’t a rocket.  Also remember that with every set back like this we end up learning more stuff and getting Smarter.

Don’t allow people to argue that this kind of event is a waste of money. It’s not. Awesome science is difficult. Doing hard stuff means that sometimes you’ll make mistakes. Mistakes make you SMARTER in a very real way.

The latest OFFICIAL updates on the booster failure can be found here:


10 Awesome Startups That Are Looking To Profit From A New Space Race

What would you do if you were a billionaire and wanted to go to space?
The obvious answer: use that money to start a company to help you do just that.

In recent years, some of the most famous names in tech, like Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have been founding and investing in companies that are looking to the stars.

Whether for personal dreams of adventure or for profit, these companies are doing the engineering and basic science needed to get humans into space.

They’re also looking at other opportunities that space provides, like access to resources that are hard to get on Earth and the ability to collect information about our planet from a different perspective.

1. SpaceX: The “other” company from Tesla founder Elon Musk. In the short term, it’s building rockets and capsules to get astronauts to the International Space Station. In the long term, it’s looking to make trips to Mars somewhat affordable by creating rockets that can be used many times, like the “Grasshopper” below, which can take off and land instead of simply falling into the ocean.

2. Planetary Resources: With financial backing from Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, “Avatar” director James Cameron, and others, Planetary Resources is looking at revolutionizing the tech world by mining nearby asteroids for metals that are extremely rare on Earth but found in abundance in space.

3. Blue Origin: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is well-known for his love of all things space. While he founded Blue Origins in 2000, it’s only in recent years that he’s become more open with the progress his company is making towards making manned spaceflight affordable.

4. Planet Labs: Using 28 miniature satellites known as “CubeSats,” Planet Labs aims to provide more detailed and more frequently updated images of our planet than have previously been available. These photos will allow for traffic maps and environmental data to be more accurate than ever.

5. Kymeta: Like other companies with backing from Bill Gates (who both provided initial cash and contributed to a $50 million venture round), Kymeta is a company looking to make a positive social impact. The company plans to use orbiting satellites and low-cost receivers to provide Internet to vehicles and also to isolated areas in the developing world.

6. Orbital Sciences: Though it has a background in launching satellites and missile defense systems, Orbital has been making great strides in recent years towards providing vessels for NASA, putting it in direct competition with SpaceX.

7. Deep Space Industries: Like Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries hopes to mine asteroids for materials that are worth insane amounts due to their rarity on Earth. The company plans to identify viable asteroids in the next two years and begin mining within a decade.

8. Stratolaunch Systems: Founded in 2011 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Stratolaunch is looking to make spaceflight more affordable by using massive, lightweight planes to do most of the work of getting people and cargo off the ground.

9. SkyBox Imaging: With backing from CrunchFund’s Michael Arrington, SkyBox is deploying a fleet of miniature satellites, much like Planet Labs. The company is looking to use these for a much wider range of uses however, including oil and natural gas site selection, reporting of natural disasters, urban planning, and agriculture.

10. Masten Space Systems: Based in Southern California, Masten is dedicated to making advanced, reusable rockets that can take off and land vertically many times, in the same vein as SpaceX’s “Grasshopper.”

Source: BusinessInsider


An Orbital Sciences Antares rocket was rolled out and erected at its launch pad yesterday, July 9, 2014. The Orb-2 mission will be the company’s second operational resupply mission to the International Space Station with their Cygnus spacecraft, following a September test flight and December inaugural operational mission. Antares launches from pad 02 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport adjacent to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia shore. 

I covered the September, 2013 Orb-D1 test flight during my time in the NASA Public Affairs office, which I made a few posts about here. A fellow co-worker caught my excitement shortly after launch, and the amusing photo can be viewed here. If you remember the space frog from the LADEE mission, you’ll get a kick out of that image of me.

Additional information from the company’s website about Orb-2 can be found here.

Of course, the first modification would be to ensure the supplies have a soft landing.

This would allow thousands of pounds of lifesaving supplies like medicine, food, and water to be delivered in about an hour to locations that cannot be easily reached by other forms of transportation. Recycling old Russian and US missiles would be considerably cheaper than starting from scratch.

Converted intercontinental ballistic missiles have already been used for peaceful reasons by companies like Orbital Sciences to launch satellites into orbit.

Read More.

Source: IFLS; Photo Credit: Missile Defense Agency/U.S. Department of Defense