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Space for the rest of us is got just a little closer this past week. Over the high desert of California – in the rarefied air where the X-1, X-15 and the space shuttle first tested their wings – a new spaceship took flight for the first time. I am talking about the Virgin VSS Enterprise – bolted beneath its carrying aircraft – the VMS Eve – formerly known as White Knight 2. The test flight lasted just less than 3 hours – they reached 45 thousand feet – and we are told it went well. Eve/Enterprise designer Burt Rutan called it “a momentous day for the Scaled and Virgin Teams.” Ahead – independent glide tests and then powered flight this year and next. Once the team is happy – revenue service to space will begin… Eve will take Enterprise to 50 thousand feet – where they will part company – the rocket motor will fire – Enterprise will make a beeline for the dark sky – carrying a half dozen paying passengers into a new era.
It is springtime in the northern hemisphere of Mars – and while NASA’s lander called Phoenix has not survived the long dry ice encrusted winter – there are signs of – activity, though not life – elsewhere on the Red Planet. Check out this image captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The dark spots are patches of basaltic sand that is carried to the surface as the temperature warms and the dry ice sublimates – meaning goes straight from a solid to a gas – skipping the liquid stage (it’s just a phase). Notice how they all fan out in the same direction – proof they formed at the same time – when the wind speed and direction were identical. Basalt fans – a sublime sign of warmer days ahead on Mars – sorta like our Washington cherry blossoms here in the U.S.
It will be the fall of 2011 before the Mars Science Laboratory makes its way to the Red Planet. The ambitious rover mission was supposed to be there by now, but the launch was delayed after a host of technical and money woes (the two tend to go hand in hand – see: Constellation). In any case, the folks at The Jet Propulsion Lab in California – are glad they got an extra 26 months – because this mission is the most complex ever.
And while it may be a long time before humans ever get to Mars – you can simulate the long journey now – if you are so inclined. The Russian and European space programs have teamed up for an endurance experiment that seems like the premise for a bad reality TV show – survivor meets big brother I suppose…these are some of the applicants for Mars 500 – a 520 day trip to nowhere that will try to create the rigors and challenges of a piloted mission to the Red Planet. The ersatz spacecraft sits at the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems. Three Russians, two Europeans and One Chinese will be hermetically sealed inside the steel container in May. They will live in 550 cubic meters – will only eat from food stored inside – and will communicate with the outside world either by deliberately ratty internet – or with a 20 minute one way delay once they reach simulated Mars. The goal: to better understand the psychological and physiological rigors of such a, long, isolated mission. The big question: whether to select a rainbow coalition Star Trek like crew – or a bunch of GI-Joe’s – who think act and look alike. So should we take a pool to on whether they will make it the full 520 days? I sure hope there is a webcam…appointment TV for space cadets for sure. Though the team final team has not been selected yet, candidate Arch’hanmael Galliard, of France, is feeling strong about his chances.
“I think that I will be accustomed rapidly to this environment. I thought at the beginning this environment could be smaller. No, I think everything could be done here – experiments, living, doing sports, there is many things that we can do, I think, during this period, we will see with time, if it is really possible or not, but I think that we can do it.”
The Mars 500 crew will sure have plenty of time to refine their video game playing prowess. And a now ESA is out with a new study that suggests gaming can enhance collaboration among scientists and engineers – and can be a good education and public outreach tool. The study suggests ESA strike deals with some game developers to create titles that teach – how about Grand Theft Spacecraft? I suppose not…
The hits keep coming from W-I-S-E…where they cover the cosmos – infra red…check out this image…this is the Wizard Nebula – or NGC 7380 for those of you who don’t have a program. It is in the Cepheus constellation – about 7,000 light years from us. The stars in this cluster are about 5 million years old – youngsters. WISE – is the Wide Field Infra Red Survey Explorer – which we told you about last week. Click on our March 19th episode if you want to know more.
Take a gander at those beautiful rings of Saturn – there is something serene about it isn’t there? But when you look a little closer as NASA and ESA’s Cassini spacecraft has – it is a lot more rough a tumble. More like a roller derby than a orderly formation of debris. A new paper concludes the rings are made of ice, small moons and some sort of mysterious reddish dust – and all this stuff is bumping into each other. About as serene as a roller derby.
And check out these young galaxies deep in the universe – in this case when it was about 3 billion years old – there is new evidence some young galaxies were forming stars earlier and faster than once thought. The images come from the APEX telescope in Chile’s Atacama desert. Astronomers say this is an ideal spot to learn more about how stars form.
In Florida, the space shuttle Discovery is packed and ready for her far flung road trip. Workers at the Kennedy Space Center installed the payload into the cargo bay a few days ago – that’s the Multipurpose Logistics Module called Leonardo. it is the space equivalent of those PODS containers for moving and storage. Leonardo is packed with all manner of supplies and spare parts that the STS-131 crew will haul up to the International Space Station next month. At the Flight Readiness Review – the NASA brass gave Discovery a “go” for launch. They are not worried about a leaky helium valve in the Reaction Control System. They say there is enough redundancy to let Discovery fly as-is. Launch is set for 6:21AM Eastern time (that’s 1021 GMT) on Monday, April 5th. Join me, David Waters and astronaut Leroy Chiao at Spaceflight Now for our Discovery Launch Webcast starting at 2am Easter – 0600 GMT. Yeah, it will be early for us – but I can sleep when the shuttles are in the museums – and that’s only 4 launches away.
They have had their share of cork popping moments over the years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the hills of La Canada California….they have also had some moments where they have had to drown some sorrows. The lab Director Charles Elachi knows the ups and downs all too well. I asked him about the decision to delay the launch of the Mars Science Lab by 26 months: Does he believe that was the right decision? I also asked Dr. Elachi about the actuators for the Mars Science Lab’s wheels that had flunked a two times life test – meaning they run them continuously for twice their design. Some did not pass but they have now all made the grade. Now you know why Opportunity and Spirit are 6 years into a 90- day mission.
If it’s one if by land…two if by sea…how many is it by space? Whatever the number – the British are coming! The British are coming! Our friends across the pond have just launched the U.K. Space Agency, with an eye toward beefing up their stake in the global space business. The budget is modest – 346 million U.S. dollars…compare that to NASA’s 20 billion. The goal of the new agency is to foster jobs in the commercial space sector – commercial and weather satellites for example, and the technologies that run them. The Brits say they will stay in the European Space Agency – which is part of the International Space Station – but they say they will not be attempting any piloted missions themselves. So let’s see, how would we pronounce the acronym for the U.K. Space Agency? “Ucksa!” Catchy!
The Spring 2010 leg of NASA’s Operation Icebridge mission is officially underway – now that a specially outfitted DC 8 aircraft has arrived in Greenland. The goal of Operation Icebridge is to is to better understand the changes going on with Earth’s polar ice sheets. NASA flies missions over the Arctic in March and April and Antarctica in October and November. Scientists have noted with growing alarm that many of Greenland’s glaciers are melting at an accelerated pace. Researchers will use a suite of laser instruments mounted on the DC8, and later a P3, to generate topographic maps of the ices heets. They then compare that data with surveys done in previous years to see how the thickness is changing. Ultimately, the idea is to fine tune computer models that predict how climate change will contribute to sea level rise.
So what do astronauts do in their free time in space (besides looking out the windows) – well last month when the shuttle Endeavour was docked at the space station during the Olympics – they offered a weightless version of the games that Bob Costas failed to mention…check it out!
And for the crew of what will likely be the second to last shuttle mission – life is imitating art – and art is imitating art. The Endeavour crew led by commander Mark Kelly – revealed their interest in Star Trek by posing Star Trek style for their mission poster. Kelly is a well know movie buff – on his last mission – he took a riff on Harry Potter. These days a lot of folks in the shuttle program are hoping for a Hollywood ending – and a few sequels to their story.
And then there’s Buzz – the second man on the moon is known as Dr. Rendez vous – he literally wrote the book on how two orbiting bodies should meet up in space – but on the dance floor – well let’s just say I hope i am as spry an 80 year old as he is. You know the score by now – tough crowd there…on Dancing With the Stars – Buzz may not last long on the show – but he doesn’t need any natural rhythm to be loved by the likes of us, right?
Let’s go to the mailbag first – and this first one makes me want to dance – Gary Anderson left this note on Facebook:
“I ponied up $5.00 a month on paypal recurring. $5 bucks ya don’t even know its coming out of the bank. If the 10,000 viewers paid $5 (1/2 the cost of a movie ticket), I can only imagine what an internet production could entail w/ a $50,000 a month budget.”
Gary – you are my hero! On YouTube this came from Kapitan Anime:
“A very good show Miles, but I see you are still trying to push the Obama / Bolden KOOL AID! Give me some Michael Griffin Cola any day?”
Griffin cola eh? Not so sweet I bet…and finally this from another YouTuber:
“Amy Mainzer is hot, she looks like Angelina Jolie.”
I was thinking Gina Gershon in her hey day…but that works too. Gotta go before I get in trouble!