The Week in Space History- October 14th-20th

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Breaking the Sound Barrier- 72 Years Ago

The Bell X-1 was a rocket-powered research aircraft designed by Bell Aircraft in the 1940s.

There were several variants, the X-1A, B, C, D, and E, which flew from the late 1940s to the late 1950s. NASA notes that not only was the X-1 important because it was the first aircraft to break the sound barrier; it’s also important because these planes-

“established the concept of the research aircraft, built solely for experimental purposes, and unhampered by any military or commercial requirements. Although subsequent X-planes were built for a wide range of purposes — technology or concept demonstrators, unmanned test missiles, and even as prototypes in all but name — the X-1s were built to go faster than an aircraft had ever flown before.”

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Before his historic supersonic flight, Yeager flew fighters during WWII, becoming an Ace and decorated pilot.

Liftoff of Cassini!

Cassini’s launch was the only time that a Titan IV rocket was used to launch a scientific payload. All other launches with that rocket had been for the military or intelligence agencies.

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Cassini’s launch on a Titan IV rocket. Picture credit- NASA

After launching from Earth, Cassini performed numerous gravity assist maneuvers, twice at Venus, once at Earth, and finally once at Jupiter.

The spacecraft arrived at Saturn after a six-year, 261-day cruise and started investigating the planet and its moons. Cassini’s prime mission began in 2004 and went until 2008. The first mission extension was from 2008 to 2010, the Equinox mission. The final extension, the Solstice mission, lasted from 2010 until September of 2017.

I wrote a piece about Cassini that’s available on, check it out.

Let’s talk about the weather…

On October 16th, 1975, GOES 1, or the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, launched to study the weather of our home planet. The GOES satellites are part of a joint effort between NOAA and NASA.

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The launch of GOES 1 in October of 1975. Picture credit- NASA

“These spacecraft help meteorologists observe and predict local weather events, including thunderstorms, tornadoes, fog, hurricanes, flash floods, and other severe weather. In addition, GOES observations have proven helpful in monitoring dust storms, volcanic eruptions, and forest fires.”

The GOES imagery website is continually updated and is viewable by anyone with a web browser. The GOES project was a development of the earlier Applications Technology Satellites and the Synchronous Meteorological Satellites that launched during the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. Pictured here is an image from the newest generation of GOES satellites. GOES-17 captures this beautiful shot of the Western Hemisphere from 22,300 miles above the surface of Earth.

The GOES program brought more advanced satellites online over the years. Initial satellites in the series, like GOES 1, 2, and 3, were spin-stabilized, like the SMS satellites before them.

Spin stabilization meant that the spacecraft didn’t need to expend fuel for station keeping. The spacecraft spins around like a top would if you spun one on a table.

Three-axis stabilization is another way spacecraft are controlled in space. Newer GOES satellites are stabilized in this way since it allows for precise orientation of the satellite for science objectives.

Expanding our knowledge of Earth science is part of NASA’s Earth Science Division. This division coordinates airborne and satellite observations to help us understand our home planet. Working towards bettering our knowledge of the weather here on Earth isn’t done strictly for scientific reasons, there’s an economic imperative as well.

Think about how many industries are affected by the weather. Farming, ranching, fishing, air travel, anyone that has to drive in inclement weather, tourism, and countless others are all

affected by the weather on our planet.

Studying Earth is both economically and scientifically prudent, and we should not shy away from finding out as much as we can about our home planet.


Galileo spent six years getting to Jupiter, due to a couple of reasons. “The Galileo mission had originally been designed for a direct flight of about 3–1/2 years to Jupiter, using a planetary three-stage IUS. When this vehicle was canceled, plans were changed to use a liquid-fuel Centaur upper stage. Due to safety concerns after the Challenger accident, NASA canceled use of the Centaur on the space shuttle, and Galileo was moved to the two-stage IUS; this, however, made it impossible for the spacecraft to fly directly to Jupiter. To save the project, Galileo engineers designed a new and remarkable six-year interplanetary flight path using planetary gravity assists.”

With the upper stage selected and with the shuttle finally launched, Galileo was on its way to Jupiter, via an indirect path that many missions to the outer planets must take.

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“The solid-fuel upper stage then accelerated the spacecraft out of Earth orbit toward the planet Venus for the first of three planetary flybys, or “gravity assists,” designed to boost Galileo toward Jupiter. In a gravity assist, the spacecraft flies close enough to a planet to be propelled by its gravity, creating a “slingshot” effect for the spacecraft.”

Galileo performed important science during its cruise to Jupiter. First, Galileo completed a flyby of Venus, passing by that planet at a distance of about 10,000 miles, then continuing back to Earth, flying within 597 miles of the planet it had launched from, on February 10th, 1990. Finally, flying by Earth again on December 8th, 1992, coming within 188 miles of our planet. During these flybys the spacecraft observed Venus, gathering views of clouds on that planet and obtaining new information on the atmosphere of that world.

During the cruise to Jupiter, it was discovered that the high-gain umbrella-like antenna on the top of Galileo wouldn’t properly deploy. The high-gain antenna would have allowed for faster data rates for the information sent back to the ground stations of NASA’s Deep Space Network. Thankfully, ground controllers were still able to use the low gain antennas to accomplish most of the mission objectives.

After the antenna situation had been worked around, Galileo still had a way to go before arriving at Jupiter. On October 29th, 1991, Galileo “became the first spacecraft ever to encounter an asteroid” passing within 1,000 miles of Gaspra. Two years later, on August 28th, 1993, it flew by a second, larger asteroid, named Ida. It was discovered that Ida has a small moon, later named Dactyl, which is less than a mile wide.

The mission continued to bring back incredible science when the spacecraft team instructed Galileo to collect data on the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter. I’m linking to these images in the show notes as they are truly spectacular. The speed that the cometary fragments were traveling at when they impacted Jupiter meant that there were massive amounts of energy released in the collision. One of the fragments impacted Jupiter with the energy equivalent of 6,000,000 megatons of TNT, hundreds of times as much power as all of the nuclear weapons on Earth put together.

One year ago- Liftoff of BepiColombo!

This mission is a joint ESA-JAXA venture to Mercury, the closest planet to our Sun. This beautiful night launch marked the first time the Europeans have led a mission to Mercury.

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Picture credit- Arianespace.

The BepiColombo mission is unique in that two-spacecraft launched and will study Mercury simultaneously. Science returns won’t start to roll in until 2026, which underscores how difficult it is to go closer to the Sun. It’s counterintuitive, but a spacecraft requires more energy to reach Mercury than Pluto.

After seven years of constant braking with an Ion engine, BepiColombo will arrive in orbit around Mercury. At that point, the spacecraft will pick up where the NASA MESSENGER mission left off, studying everything from the exosphere to volcanic activity.

The two orbiters, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter, and the Mercury Magnetosphere Orbiter, will remain attached until October of 2025. Before the arrival at Mercury, BepiColombo will perform nine planetary flybys, six of which will be at Mercury. The spacecraft will fly within 200 km (~125 miles) of Mercury during these maneuvers. These gravity-assist flybys will complement the solar electric ion thrusters, helping guide the spacecraft into a stable orbit around Mercury.

BepiColombo will travel 9 billion kilometers (nearly 5.6 billion miles) and will reach a top speed of 60 km/s (that’s a blistering 134,216 mph) during its seven-year journey to Mercury. Here’s to a successful cruise portion of the mission and to incredible science that we can expect coming back to Earth in 2026.

Six Scrubs and a Launch

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This incredible low-angle shot of Columbia was captured just seconds after liftoff from Pad 39B. Picture credit- NASA

This was the second mission US Microgravity Laboratory Spacelab mission, and during this 16-day mission, the crew split into a red and blue shift to work around-the-clock in this science laboratory. Dividing into two teams meant that 12-hour shifts could be utilized, maximizing the time spent doing experiments while in orbit.

During this mission astronaut Kent Rominger, a native from Colorado potato country was excited because the crew was tasked with growing potatoes during this mission. Specifically, the crew was investigating how to deliver water and nutrients to plants growing in space. For fans of the Martian, I think Mark Watney would be proud.

Check back next week for more!

Written by

Hosts The Space Shot & The Cosmosphere Podcast. Podcaster. Techie. Bibliophile. Space science & history nerd.

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