This Week in Space – May 8, 2010

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Atlantis at the launchpad. Source: NASA

Hello and Welcome from the Kennedy Space Center. The Space Shuttle Atlantis is on the pad – pointed in the right direction – marching toward what will likely be her last mission. The crew of 6 – led by commander Ken Ham is headed to the international space station to deliver some supplies, replace some solar array batteries and install a new satellite dish. The shuttle was cleared to fly after a smooth flight readiness review – the team focused a fair amount of time on some ceramic inserts that hold window frames – one of them fell off during the last descent – of Discovery in April. The fix: a thicker braided chord designed to keep the insert from unscrewing. Interestingly, Shuttle Program Manager John Shannon said there was no talk about it being the last flight for Atlantis:

The tone of the meeting was extremely positive.  Nobody mentioned, we weren’t purposely avoiding it, but nobody mentioned this was Atlantis’ last planned flight.  It’s just folks are so focused on doing thier jobs, and they are performing with such pride all the way to the end, that it’s just normal business.  The team is very mature, looking a the data, looking and things they can do, you know might ask did you really have to go and replace all of the braided cord on all of these plugs which have performed pretty well in the past, and the answer is we thing we can make it better, and because we can make it better we’re going to go do it.  That’s the kind of attitude this team has.  They are such an asset to human spaceflight, and I just couldn’t be more proud of them.

In fact here in Florida – Launch Director Mike Leinbach says the shuttle team is moving through the stages of grief:

Let’s take ourselves back in time, maybe a year or 18 months or so, when we were talking about the end of the program, and a lot of people didn’t believe it, and were in denial.  Thought, heck, the program can’t end, we are going to fly forever.  Well now we know that’s not the case.  The program will end.  People have absolutely come to grips with that, when I talk to folks on the floor of the processing facilities, and I’m sure it was the same in Utah, they know the end is coming and they are making their plans.  And so we’ve gotten past the denial stage of change, and we are into the exploration and acceptance of change.  And that’s good…that’s very healthy for people to go through that process.  And we are there.  Again, it does not change the way they work on the vehicle, it’s just their mental capacity have accepted the fact that the program is going to end, and they need to make plans for the future.

Atlantis is slated to launch Friday at at 2:20pm here – 1620 GMT. Our live webcast on Spaceflight Now begins at 9:30- 1330 GMT.

Pad Abort 1, May 6, 2010. Source: NASA

Whatever the US flies into space after the shuttle fleet is done – you can rest assured it will include some sort of crew escape system – which was conspicuously absent on the space transportation system. And one notion for one capsule that might not ever fly for real got a good testing this week in New Mexico.
It was a solid rocket motor with a half million pounds of thrust – designed to pull an Orion capsule away from a rocket that has gone awry…this test did not go awry at all, said Orion Program Manager Mark Geyer – the capsule went 0 to 350 miles an hour in 2 and a half seconds – a kick 16 times the force of gravity:

One of the things about these tests…we do a lot of testing on the ground, you tests the motors by themselves to see how they work, you test the computers by themselves.  But this test, why it is hard, is you put them all together…you take your computers, you take your attitude control motor, and you decide to accelerate them to 15 G’s, and you blare them with 160 db’s, and they all gotta work.  And the team did such a flawless job today it worked great.  So its a huge step for us.

The escape system is part of the Constellation program which the Obama White House wants to scrap. So this abort motor is facing an abort scenario of its own.

SpaceX is on the calendar here to launch its Falcon 9 rocket for the first time on May 23rd – but it might go even sooner than that – they are on standby for May 16th and 17th as well – the company requested those dates in the even Atlantis gets off the pad on time – and allows them to turn around the range as they say. The Falcon 9 is designed to carry cargo – and eventually humans to and from the international space station under contract to NASA.

One of the great legends of the Apollo era has gone west – Gunter Wendt – the pad leader who tucked Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and shuttle astronauts into their spaceships – died this week. A German who became an American citizen – he was known as the Pad Fuhrer. Remember the line in Apollo 13 – Tom Hanks – playing Jim Lovell asks the pad leader – “I wonder where Gunter Wendt” – well he actually never went too far – dying close to the launch pads – at his home in Merritt Island, Florida. He was 85.

 Robotnaut 2 Source: NASAThere is a new kind of space race underway – and it’s all about who gets the bragging rights for sending the coolest robot into the void…In Japan, engineers are planning to send a 2 legged robot to walk on the surface of the moon by 2015.  They had been thinking about sending a wheeled robot – but decided a biped would be more “fascinating and stimulating” (their words). The Japanese claim to be robot leaders – but they  better be careful about saying that around this guy – Robonaut 2 is a humanoid robot – built at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. He is slated to fly to the international space station in September. His legs are not going – he won’t need them in low earth orbit. So how about a game of rock em sock em robots in space.
Scientists came one step closer to solving the riddle of how our humble planetary abode got all its water. Two teams of scientists using a NASA telescope in Hawaii found water – in frozen form – on the asteroid known as 24 Themis. And not just a little ice – a third of the space rock is covered in frost. And they also found organic molecules – so was it an asteroid collision that gave us the oceans – and the raw material for life? Maybe so…The discovery also validate NASA’s new mission to send astronauts to an asteroid before staging a mission to Mars.  The discovery has blurred the distinction between asteroids and comets – which are often described as dirty snowballs.

NASA and the European Space Agency are on the front lines of that epic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer captured this image on May 4th. Astronaut Soichi Noguchi snapped this shot from the International Space station – and this image comes from ESA’s Envisat. ESA is also aiming the crafts’ synthetic aperture radar – which can spot oil slicks at night – and through clouds.  The slick is forcing the shuttle team to do some shuffling to get the external fuel tank for the second to last shuttle mission from New Orleans to the Cape. The slick is right in the path NASA’s freedom star normally used to tow the tank. The detour into shallower water is forcing NASA to hire a commercial barge to haul the tank  part of the way.

Short of sending humans – the holy grail of Mars exploration is a robotic sample return mission.   Rovers like the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory, that will analyze samples in situ, can only do so much.  Researchers would just love to have some martian rocks to put through the analytical mill in a lab here on earth.  But it’s so darn complicated and expensive that it has never moved from dreams to reality. But the man who runs the the never ending Spirit and opportunity Rover campaigns says the way to go is to break it all down – make it three separate missions. Steve Squyres laid it all out at an astrobiology conference in Houston – His vision: First a rover goes to find some interesting rocks – then a lander – with a return rocket arrives nearby – carrying a sample to earth – and finally a craft would rendezvous with the sample ship and bring the rocks back home. EZ PZ right – oh one other thing – NASA is teaming up with ESA to share cost on this mission. Are you listening to this human spaceflight team?

The Mars rover "Spirit." Source: NASA/JPL

Seems like a good excuse to check in on Squyres die hard rovers. Opportunity sent back this image the other day – it shows the rim of Endeavour crater – the rover’s destination in its multi-year trek across the Martian desert. The crater is now about 8 miles away –  it is about 25 times wider than Victoria – where Opportunity spent the better part of two years. By the way Opportunity’s odometer hit 20 kilometers the other day – no need for an oil change or a tire rotation though…let’s see – 12.4 miles over 74 months – that’s about .0002 miles an hour…Spirit is still doing no miles an hour – stuck in the sand – in hibernation mode until spring – we hope.

ESA’s Herschel infrared space telescope is marking its first anniversary – and giving us a nice gift – this is the Rosette Nebula – about 5 thousand light years from us. using infra red – Herschel can see dust – the brighter ones are cocoons where massive embryonic stars ten times our sun are forming.

NASA’s Chandra observatory captured an X-Ray image of a double black hole in the M82 galaxy. This is the first evidence that more than one mid sized black hole exists in the same galaxy. This may explain how supermassive black holes form. M82 is about 12 million light years from us – it is young galaxy – giving astronomers a chance to see how stars form.

Here’s a Grade B space thriller that is not coming to a theatre near you…It’s called the attack of Zombie Sat!  Were talking about a rogue bird named Galaxy 15 – it is adrift after solar flares fried its electronic brains. The Intelsat satellite is still transmitting as it drifts – and there is concern it will interfere   with other satellites. Intelsat has tried to shut it down – but it seems to have a mind of its own.

You Hungry? How about a bite of Iapetus? Looks like someone has already been there though – check out this image of the Saturn moon snapped by the Cassini Spacecraft – run by NASA/ESA and the Italian Space Agency. Iapetus has a dark and a light side – maybe we need to get it some meds…

And now the weather forecast – for Saturn – in a word stormy – and holy cow – this one is a humdinger – it is a blizzard five times larger than the so called Snowmageddon storm this past winter in Washington. And here is what makes this even more fun – it was spotted by some amateurs – It all began in May – when Australian Anthony Wesley spotted the dark spot. He gave a heads up to the Cassini team – which aimed its infrared spectrometer at the blizzard. Cassini has been watching the Saturn weather in its “storm alley” for years – but the blizzards last for weeks – and the Cassini Spectrometer needs to be aimed months in advance.  So it is good to have some amateur storm chasers on Saturn…so to speak.

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