'This Week in Space' – June 13, 2010


David Waters is your host for the latest edition of “This Week In Space.”  Check us out!

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Hayabusa. Source: JAXA

It was a nail biter – sample return missions always are – but in the end JAXA pulled it out and the troubled Japanese “Hayabusa” mission to land on an asteroid and collect a sample ended on a high note.  A small capsule containing dust from the asteroid Itokawa touched down Sunday under parachute at the Woomera test range in the Australian Outback.  Launched in May 2003, Hayabusa suffered a host of technical problems and malfunctions, but in the end came home.  For those of you keeping score, NASA is 1 for 1 on sample return missions in recent years.  The Genesis spacecraft, which returned a sample of the solar wind to Earth for analysis, cratered in the desert of Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground back in 2004 when its drogue parachute failed to deploy.  Some of the sample return payload survived the crash, though.  On a happier note, the Stardust spacecraft successfully returned a dust sample from the tail of the comet Wild 2 in 2006…also to the Dugway Proving Ground.   And to answer your final question – yes, I know what it is –  “Hayabusa” means “Peregrin Falcon.”

While the Japanese were celebrating, the South Koreans – well, no so much. They “had a bad day” on Thursday as they say in the rocket business.  A Russian-built Naro-1 rocket launched from the Naro Space Center and all appeared fine at first, but mission controllers lost contact with it 137 seconds into flight.  Korean news reports indicated it exploded and crashed.  This is the second failure in two tries for the Koreans, who are attempting to establish a toehold in the satellite launch club.  Currently, eight countries and Europe have established launch capability.

And, before we leave the Pacific Rim…What was that glowing spiral in the sky over Australia last Saturday morning?  Could it be ALIENS?  Well, as it turns out, no.  It was actually Falcon 9.  Despite the spate of UFO reports that were phoned in to TV stations around Australia, SpaceX founder Elon Musk told our friends at Space.com that folks were actually seeing Falcon 9 venting propellants after it rocketed to orbit.  The sun caught the event at just the right angle to put on a show for the Aussies.

Thousands of contractor employees who work on the Constellation program have known the pink slips were coming ever since the Obama Administration announced plans to cancel the moon-shot project in February –  but now it looks like they may be hitting the unemployment line earlier than they thought.  NASA has told big contractors Lockheed Martin and ATK to come up with the money  to cover the costs of bringing Constellation to an end, even though Congress has not signed off of the cancellation yet.  It seems Lockmart and ATK are contractually required to pay those termination costs…which will total about a billion dollars.  Now those companies will likely have to lay off workers to pull that money together.  Expect this latest development to further poison the already nasty debate going on between the Administration, NASA and Congress over the future of the manned spaceflight program.  We’ll have more on this for you in next week’s show.

Atlantis lands. Source: NASA

Speaking of programs that are ending…the shuttle program is winding down, but don’t go thinking you’ve seen it all, been there, done that.  NASA has released new  video…from inside Atlantis…shot May 26th at the Kennedy Space Center right after the orbiter returned from 12 days in space.  This is the first time NASA has ever released video from the inside an orbiter during this crucial time.  Those are workers from prime shuttle contractor United Space Alliance there in the the crew compartment, ploughing through a long checklist to prep the spacecraft for tow-back to its hanger.  As  you well know, there are just two more shuttle missions left on the manifest – and NASA has cranked  up a fun public outreach program to get folks involved.  Send your Face to Space.  You can upload a picture of yourself and they will fly your mug on one of the final missions.

Members of the ISS Expedition 23 crew are back on terra firma. Oleg Kotov, Soichi Noguchi and TJ Creamer parachuted to a landing on the steppes of Kazhakstan in a Russian Soyuz capsule last week.  We’ve all gotten used to spectacular landing pix compliments of NASA lensman Bill Ingalls.  But now NASA and the Russian Space Agency have released a never-before-seen view from a camera attached to an all-terrain vehicle that was part of the Russian Search and Recovery Forces team.  In the end, all was well with the Expedition 23 guys.  Expedition 24 crew members are set to blast off to the ISS next week.  Check in with us at Spaceflight Now for all the up-to-the-minute status reports.

The Mars rover Spirit may have fallen on some hard times recently…she’s stuck in the sand and in hibernation mode during the Martian winter.  But she made some news this past week.  Scientists have been pouring over data collected by Spirit back in 2005, and have identified high concentrations of a the mineral magnesium iron carbonate in a rock outcropping called “Comanche.”  That, in turn, suggests Mars may have once harbored a wet, non-acidic environment that could have been favorable for life.  Principal Investigator Steve Squyres is hailing the finding as one of the most significant ever Spirit or Opportunity.

Could there be methane-based life on Saturn’s moon Titan?  Before anyone gets carried away, let’s be really clear:  scientists don’t know, and the consensus is “probably not.”  But, new data published this week from the Cassini Spacecraft suggests some interesting chemical interactions happening on the surface of Titan that raise some intriguing possibilities.  It seems hydrogen atoms settling down from the atmosphere are disappearing at ground level, and new maps of surface hydrocarbons show a lack of a chemical called acetylene.  Both would be an excellent food source for a methane-based life form.  Experts are quick to point out that there a number of non-biological explanations for what’s going on with those chemicals. Hmmm.

And while we are in the Saturn system, check this out…lightning.   Those are actual lighting flashes, as seen by Cassini, on the night side of Saturn, in a cloud illuminated by the planet’s rings.  By Earth standards, this would be a massive storm – the cloud itself is nearly 2000 miles wide.  The thunder you hear on this video is actually enhanced for your listening pleasure.  The lightning does produce radio waves that instruments on Cassini can pick up, but the frequencies are above the range of the human ear.  But as Marlon Perkins used to say on Wild Kingdom – all scenes, whether actual or created – reflect true facts.


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