'This Week In Space' – June 27, 2010


The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is now available – give us a watch.

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Discovery launch. Source: NASA

Hello and Welcome. we begin this week with shuttle manifest destiny…and the movable feast that the last days of STS launching has become.   It now appears the next shuttle flight – Discovery flying the STS-133 mission –  will launch on October 29, and the STS-134 flight of Endeavour moves to February 28 of next year.   An official announcement is expected on July 1st.  The reason for the delay: scientists need some time to put the finishing touches on the final shuttle payload to the station – the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer,  a particle physics experiment. But we use the word final with some caution – as NASA has not ruled out an encore mission for Atlantis.  Look for a decision on that in August.

Of course there are a lot of people out there who would like to see the shuttles fly on…a new and familiar name is now on the list – Senator John Glenn – the first American to orbit the earth, a bonafide hero and a shuttle veteran as well – released a statement on Obama’s plans for NASA this week. He repeated what he has often said – that the shuttle should stay just a little bit longer…he does support keeping the station going past 2015 – and he agrees a moon base is not  in the cards now – as for the “smaller, less experienced companies” vying to fly cargo – and eventually people – to the space station should be said they should only be phased in only “after they demonstrate a high degree of competency and reliability, particularly with regard to safety concerns.”

In Hawthorne California – at SpaceX headquarters they would beg to differ – with all due respect to the Senator. It’s been a few weeks now since their successful first launch of their Falcon 9 rocket – and they are poring through the data – trying to better understand why they had a late in the count scrub before the launch, why the second stage rolled in orbit – and why they were unable to recover the first stage. Details on all of that and much more are in the full interview I had via Skype with SpaceX’s Ken Bowersox the other day.

Some fire and smoke from an Ariane 5 rocket. It blasted off from Guyana on Saturday. The payload – two satellites.  Arabsat-5A will provide telecom and broadband services to Africa and the Middle East.  The South Korean COMS satellite includes weather observation, ocean surveillance, and telecom payloads.  All eyes will be on Arianespace later this year as they begin launch operations using the Soyuz and new Vega rockets.

IKAROS Solar Sail.  Source:  JAXAThe Japanese Space Agency “JAXA” is on a roll these days.  We’ve shown you these pictures before, but we’ll show you again because they’re so cool – this is the Hayabusa sample return capsule streaking across the sky on June 13, returning dust samples from an asteroid. Now check out this – it’s a solar sail called Ikaros that launched last month. These pictures were taken after it unfurled on June 15 – when it was more than five million miles from Earth.  Solar sail lovers say they are a great propulsion technology. the idea: the sail will be pushed through the void by the sun’s light – specifically the photons. Ironically – solar sails do not rely on the solar wind – which is not as strong as the photons. Guess you could call it a new tack in space. We’ll keep you posted on how the space regatta is going.

If you want a good view of what is going on in the world of space – check out the the daily CSExtra – from the coalition for space exploration – which is where we saw this next story.

The Cassini spacecraft made its closest flyby ever past Saturn’s moon Titan last weekend –    skimming just 547 miles over Titan’s clouds –  looking for evidence of a possible magnetic field.  This was some fancy flying – the spacecraft actually dipped low enough to enter Titan’s atmosphere, which has a totally different aerodynamic environment than space.  This was Cassini’s 71st flyby of Titan.

And it was the first Cassini flyby brought to you by the CSExtra – To find out more about the Coalition for space exploration and to subscribe to the daily CSExtra, go their website.

A spectacular new image is out this week  from the Hubble Space Telescope of a fertile star forming region in a galaxy next door. This glowing bubble of gas in the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud is called N11. It is nearly a thousand light years across.  Think of it as a stellar nursery – the sparkling diamond-like clusters are regions of energetic star formation.  Astronomers study these star clusters for clues as to how stars are born and develop.

Astronomers have detected a “superstorm” on an extrasolar planet.  The world in question is a so-called “hot Jupiter” planet about 150 light years away in the constellation Pegasus.  It orbits very close to its sun – and one side always faces inward and is scorching hot, and the other side outward  and is very cold.  The planet also has a thick carbon monoxide atmosphere.  Now we all know what happens on this planet when hot air meets cold – storms.  And that’s what they’re finding on that planet too, storms with winds up to 6,000 miles per hour. – That’s about Category 25 on the Saffir Simpson Scale I believe.

"Rachmaninoff" Crater on Mercury. Source: MESSENGER

And, here’s a little news about the planet Mercury, the International Astronomical Union has approved a name for this double-ringed basin, imaged by the MESSENGER spacecraft.  It’s “Rachmaninoff.”  The IAU names craters on Mercury after deceased artists, musicians, painters and authors.

How’s this to make a Mom proud?  Seventh graders at Evergreen Middle School in Cottonwood, California have found a never-before-seen cave on Mars.  As part of the Mars Student Imaging Project offered by NASA and Arizona State, the kids directed the Mars Odyssey orbiter to take some snaps of a Martian volcano called “Pavonis Mons.”    Similar features have been seen elsewhere on the red planet, but never on this volcano. Next up:  the students have submitted the site as a candidate for imaging by the super-high rez HiRISE camera on the Mars Recon Orbiter.  With a resolution of about a foot per pixel, HiRISE could could potentially see down inside the cave. Their teacher Dennis Mitchell gets an “attaboy” as well.

And finally, let’s check in with our Mars 500 friends.   That’s three Russians, two Europeans and one Chinese guy who are sealed up inside a mock spacecraft in Moscow on a simulated mission to Mars.  The idea is to mimic as closely as possible the conditions of a real interplanetary mission – they are taking or growing all their own food, outside communication is limited and patchy, et cetera, et cetera.  Does this sound like kind of a spacey version of that whole Biosphere 2 thing to you?  It does to me.  Anyway.  They’ll be filing regular video diaries during their mission.  For the record, the facility consists of four interconnected modules and a fifth external module that will simulate the Martian surface once they, uh, get there.  Total volume of their living space:  550 cubic meters.  The mission will run for 520 days and conclude November 5, 2011.  It will be interesting to see if the crew is still jazzed about doing these video diaries come, say, next August.  It might get old soon.  A lot of things might get old soon.  We’ll check in with them from time to time to see how “deep space” is treating them. And we’ll make sure they don’t order up a pizza delivery..


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