This Week in Space – March 19, 2010

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Discovery at launchpad 39A. Source: NASA

Two million parts – all of them form the low bidder – as Wally Schirra  once famously quipped – if you put those parts together just right – you’ve got yourself a space shuttle – the problem is – just about every single one of them has to be working perfectly before a shuttle ever clears the tower.  But exceptions can be made….and that is what the shuttle launch team is doing for this next launch. With Discovery sitting on the launch pad for its penultimate flight – a helium valve  failed. The helium is used to make sure there is pressure in the fuel lines that feed the Orbital Maneuvering System engines – which handle the big course changes in orbit. Fixing the valve means a roll back to the the hangar – and a big delay. So the shuttle team will try to verify that some regulators downstream of the valve are working just fine. If so, it means they will have confidence they have only lost one layer of redundancy – and thus give Discovery its launching papers.

Source:  WISENASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer – or WISE has captured an image – Charles Foster Kane would have liked to see – rosebud….
this one is no sled though – it is a cosmic blossom in a cluster of stars in the Berkeley 59 – which sounds a little like a group of sixties anti war radicals…anyway…the blue dots are the stars…and they are formed by the orange dust cloud in the middle – and the green – those are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – of course…you can find those on earth in barbecue pits…for some reason I am hungry…WISE is also hunting for asteroids – and it has found more than a dozen that are near to earth – and we didn’t even know we were there. You’d be WISE to listen to this story – Chicken Littles.

Source:  SOHOTime now for our 90 second tour around the cosmos – brought to you by Space Careers.  Ever heard of a kamikaze comet? Check out this!  These cool images – come to us from the sun gazing SOHO spacecraft run by the European Space Agency and NASA. It shows a comet diving right into the sun. But apparently there was some sort of Heaven’s Gate suicide pact going on with the comets – because some other smaller comets did the same thing…SOHO has never seen anything like this before.

Here’s a good name for a planet in a B grade sci fi movie:  Corot 9B – it was found by the French satellite known as Corot along with The European Southern Observatory’s HARPS exoplanet hunter…Corot 9B is 1500 hundred light years away from us toward the constellation Serpens (the snake). Astronomers say it is the first normal temperate exoplanet they can study in detail. Corot B is the size of Jupiter and is mostly made of hydrogen and helium. No sign of any Corotians…

And the universe sure could use a cleaning service – would you look at this dust...these giant filaments of cold dust were captured by ESA’s Max Planck satellite…the filaments are about 500 light years from the sun – virtually next door…the pink line near the bottom is the Milky Way. No one knows what makes the dust form these shapes.

And here is a new look at a familiar spot in our solar system – new thermal images of the Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. which is a storm the size of three earths. The thermal image gives astronomers their first detailed look inside the storm. Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab captured the image using the European Southern Observatory, the Gemini Observatory in Chile and Japan’s Subaru telescope in Hawaii. They say the spot is a lot more complex than they once thought.

Mars Express. Source: ESA

More great, new images from the Martian moon of Phobos – they come from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft. The detail here is fantastic – about 4.4 meters – 14 and a half feet per pixel – like our moon – Phobos always shows the same face to the planet. Mars Express is also analyzing Phobos to see what it is made of. It bears a lot of similarity to carbonaceous asteroid – but some researchers believe it might be made up of rocky remnants from the days when Mars was being formed.

Meanwhile – a little farther out in our solar system  near Saturn – some other cool moons got a visit recently by a human made robot…this one is named Rhea – and the ESA/NASA spacecraft Cassini swooped down within 100 kilometers of the moon to get a sniff…Cassini’s RADAR instrument performed scatterometry and radiometry measurement to try and determine what Rhea is made of. And then there is little Helene – no easy task to get a good flyby shot of something that small…and the Cassini team also released this cool image of Saturn’s rings – partially obscured by the planet’s shadow. Such a beautiful planet – my second favorite.

International Space Station. Source: NASA

And a Russian Soyuz capsule carrying a pair of International Space Station keepers made its way to the surface of my favorite planet the other day. US Astronaut Jeff Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev arrived on the steppe of Kazakhstan. Strong winds toppled the capsule on its side. But the spacefarers were no worse for the wear – you know, any landing you can walk away from….the orbiting outpost they left behind may be in space as long as thirty years if all goes well technically and fiscally. The leaders of the station program met in Tokyo this past week to discuss extending the station’s life to 2028. That would mark the thirtieth anniversary of the arrival in orbit of the cornerstone of the station – the FGB – which we now call Zarya. The Obama NASA budget earmarks money to keep the station aloft until 2020. But the engineers say there is no reason ISS cannot fly longer. Eventually it will need some new batteries.
The White House is hoping to charge up some enthusiasm for its plans for NASA. The President is headed into the lion’s den on tax day. He will hold a summit on space at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – where there are a lot of angry unemployed – or soon to be – space workers. Lots of talk the president may announce one more shuttle mission – and Florida Senator Bill Nelson did not throw cold water on that idea after an Oval Office meeting with Obama – and vice president Joe Biden. Nelson expressed optimism after that chat – calling it an “excellent conversation.”

Courtesy: SpaceX

One of the big winners in the new “space” order – has apparently been having some excellent conversations with potential customers. SpaceX announcing it has inked a deal with satellite builder Loral to deliver one of its spacecraft to orbit as early as 2012. The announcement comes on the heels of that successful hotfire test of Spacex’s Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX is planning 2 dozen launches over the next five years. Loral says all those launches will mean it is assured a successful flight history in advance of its mission.

The Pentagon is complaining that it didn’t get enough advance consultation from the White House before it released its plan to cancel the back-to-the-moon program know as Constellation. The Undersecretary of the Air Force – Gary Payton – told a Senate subcommittee retiring the shuttle and canceling Ares 1 may force Pratt and Witney to double the price of its rocket engines – the overhead stays the same – even though the demand decreases. Payton is also concerned the reliability of other space systems – like solar arrays and batteries – may diminish as time goes on.
Suffice to say the batteries on a long-lost Russian moon rover are now dead – but at least we now know where to find it. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped a picture of the Lunokhod 2 buggy. A moonstruck astronomy professor Phil Stooke found it when some new LRO images hit the web. The Russians launched the Lunokhod – which means moon walker –  in 1973 – drove it around for four months – before it got stuck in a crater. No one was sure exactly where it was. Lunokhod is owned by Richard Garriott – son of Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott – and a computer game creator worth millions. He bought himself a trip on a Soyuz to the space station in 2008. Twelve years ago he bought Lunokhod at auction for 68,500 dollars – shipping and handling not included.

Listen up all you blue-suited white-scarved mach 25 flyboys and girls – if you are looking for work and I know many of you are these days – you may want to consider this – Bigelow Aerospace – the company that is building inflatable orbiting satellites that founder Robert Bigelow would like to one day run as hotels – is looking to hire you. The astronaut positions are permanent – and applicants must have completed a government space training program – and have some space flight experience. The times are changing in Low Earth Orbit.

The Enterprise never made it to low earth orbit – it was designed to test the flying characteristics of a space shuttle orbiter – and today it sits in the Air and Space Museum’s Udvar Hazy facility at Dulles Airport. But not for long – an eleven member team from shuttle prime contractor United Space Alliance went to the museum to make sure Enterprise could be cleared for flight to a museum yet to be named. After Discovery flies her last flight, she will take Enterprise’s spot. Shuttle curator Valeri Neal told CollectSpace there were no show stoppers.

Bernard Harris is the kind of person who doesn’t let show stoppers get in the way of his mission. The retired astronaut, physician and businessman is now working hard to inspire young people to embrace technical fields. I spoke with Bernard a few weeks ago.

"Blue Marble" Source: NASA

Our little planet is just brimming with life – and in fact scientists are no longer surprised to find living things under just about every frozen rock – or deep beneath the sea. But this one caught them off guard – You are looking at shrimp that live at a depth of 600 feet – below the Antarctic ice sheet. A NASA/National Science Foundation expedition led by Bob Bindschadler made the amazing find in November. The team expected to find…well…shrimpier forms of life – you know, microbes…the fact that shrimp live here has stumped them – they’re not sure what they eat. But it does make you wonder what might be under the ice sheet of Jupiter’s moon Europa…doesn’t it? So why aren’t we sending a mission there? Just asking…and if we go – I guess we should pack some cocktail sauce.

And we end with more proof there is nothing more fun that watching things crash – so long as its just a few dummies that bear the brunt of the impact. The place is NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia -the object: to test a Kevlar honeycomb cushion that might save lives in a chopper crash. In December – they tried a 35 foot drop with the cushion.
We are told this one was survivable. But the other day – they did the same test – without the cushion – same chopper – same dummies – same sensors. There was a lot more damage – and the dummies took a 40 G wallop – three times the impact on the first test.  Not good for the dummies – but for the smarties who dreamed up the kevlar cushion: a good day indeed. So kids – study hard – you don’t wanna grow up to be a dummy.

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