'This Week In Space' – July 11, 2010


The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is now available for your viewing pleasure.  Please give us a look…

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ET-138 rolls out at the Michoud Assemby Facility. Source: NASA

Hello and Welcome. We begin with a big orange caboose – if you will. The last space shuttle external fuel tank on the manifest made its way out of the barn at  Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The tank  is known affectionately as ET-138…but you can can call her “E” if you like. Tank builder Lockheed Martin pulled out all the stops for this one – hundreds of workers were on hand while a brass band played. The tank will ride on its custom barge to the Kennedy Space Center where it will be mated with Endeavour, now slated to fly the final shuttle mission N-E-T – or no earlier than – February 26th, 2011. Now there is one more tank that will be shipped from Michoud – it will be used by Atlantis should the Endeavour crew get in a jam – and need a lift home. And this is where I get to put in my plug for flying that tank – with Atlantis – one more time. Why not? And this is also where I get to nag you: if you have not seen a shuttle ride the fire to orbit – you are assigned to be at one of the last launches. No excuses. There will be a test later.

Tanks for the memories – I guess – prime shuttle contractor United Space Alliance announced its largest layoff to date –  15 percent of its workforce.  Most of those employees are in Florida – since that is where most of their employees live.  Somewhere between 800 to a thousand wrench turners and pad rats will be getting pink slips.   Another 400 or so will be sacked from other USA operations. More cuts, are expected of course as the program winds down.

And that would explain the turnout at recent job fairs at KSC – somewhere between 2 and three thousand shuttlers showed up to press the flesh and hand deliver some resumes. About 60 public and private sector employers showed up. Can you guess which company had the most popular booth? Why that would be a certain California based launch company called SpaceX.  Better SpaceX than ex-space I suppose.

If any of those jobless USAers are space history buffs – and I know there are more than a few you – you may want to consider this job: official NASA historian. apply at USAjobs.gov by the 13th. Also in the comings and goings department – NASA’s Wayne Hale is hanging up his headset but we hope not his keyboard – the veteran flight director, shuttle program manager – and eloquent blogger says its a personal decision. I sure hope he keeps sharing his pearls of wisdom with us. And the Hubble repairman just added another line to his long resume – John Grunsfeld is now a research professor at Johns Hopkins. he will keep his gig down the road as the number two man at the space telescope science institute – which is Hubble Science Central. Hey if he can’t multi task – who can?

Armadillo Aerospace

In spite of all this bad news – or I guess as a result of it – those wild eyed entrepreneurs who want to make a buck doing the Buck Rogers things are hard at work – and making some progress – check out a couple of cool test flights in recent weeks – this one comes from John Carmack’s Armadillo aerospace…here demonstrating his rocket can be shut down and restarted in flight – something solid rockets cannot do of course.  And at the Mojave Spaceport Masten Space Systems is also making progress on the on/off switch department – check out this recent test…Masten calls the vehicle Xombie…hmm, “Mojave, the Xombie has landed”…i guess that is why they call it NEW space…
All’s well that ends well up there on the International Space Station – but a Progress freighter docking was a real nail-biter last weekend. The Russian cargo ship launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome on June 30 carrying more than two tons of equipment and supplies to the ISS.  But twenty five minutes before docking – Progress and the station stopped communicating with each other and the Progress flew past the station…it wasn’t a space spat – just some interference traced to a backup TV system used for manual docking.  So  on the 4th of July, the Russians declared independence from the TV – pulled the plug – and the docking went off without a hitch…well actually -with- a hitch – if ya know what i mean.

And check out the fireworks display courtesy of NASA’s new Solar Dynamics Observatory – and the medium sized star we call Sun. It send out these flares over a 40-hour period June 11 and 12.  Here’s another view captured in the immediate aftermath of a flare – check out those magnetic loops.  Solar flares are are linked to solar storms and so-called “coronal mass ejections” – they are  clouds of charged particles that erupt off the sun and wash out over the solar system.  When they hit Earth, they can disrupt telecommunications and power grids and really light up the auroras.

This next item comes to us courtesy of our friends at the Coalition for Space Exploration.  We all know about the Big Bang – massive explosion, 13 and a half billion years ago or so, kicked off our universe.  But it may surprise to you hear that “afterglow,” so to speak, of that event is still with us.  Check out the much-anticipated new picture from ESA’s Planck telescope showing the cosmic microwave background – think of it as the dying embers, if you will,  left over from the Big Bang.  But look closely.  In this image, the bright line across the center is actually our Milky Way galaxy.  Planck project scientist Jan Tauber steps us through the rest.

Well, on this picture, of the cosmic microwave background, is basically the reddish stuff that you see behind the galaxy.  Although the galaxy is beautiful, unfortunately it hides part of the cosmic microwave background from us, and you can see that very clearly here.  You can only see the cosmic microwave background in small parts of the sky.  But those bumps that you see, those grains between yellow and orange and red, that is in fact the signal that comes to us from the Big Bang.

Suffice it to say a comprehensive understanding of the Big Bang – and how the universe evolved from there – is one of the holy grails in all of science.  We’ll keep you posted on what cosmologists glean from this image, and others like it.  Probably won’t be next week.

Calling all Explorers!  The Coalition for Space Exploration is hosting an online contest called, “Explore Our Space,” where you can learn about exploration by visiting spacecoalition.com.  By participating, you can enter to win tickets to view the STS-133 launch at Kennedy Space Center or IMAX movie tickets.  And, you’ll receive a free, digital space-themed icon and wallpaper download.  Visit spacecoalition.com for details and rules to enter. While you’re at it, sign up for CSExtra – the Coalition’s daily collection of space news.

Asteroid Lutetia. Source: Rosetta

Rosetta meet Lutetia …Lutetia, Rosetta…the former is an asteroid – the latter a European Space Agency spacecraft.  The two were like ships in the void this weekend. And the pictures are phenomenal. They show Lutetia is heavily cratered – understandable for a 4 and a half billion year old rock. And check out this shot – that is Lutetia in the forgeground – in 60 meter resolution – and that object in the distance – Saturn….that shot’s a ringer.  At ESA mission control  the crowd went wild – well as wild as they get there.  Rosetta probe passed about 3000 kilometers from the rock – that’s just under 2000 miles for those of you who don’t like doing the math. I personally prefer “miles,” but that’s just me.  When I was in high school, my friends called me kilometers… or sometimes kilo – which often raised the suspicion of the teachers for some reason. But I digress – back to high altitudes… Lutetia orbits in the main asteroid belt, and is the largest asteroid ever visited by a spacecraft. Rosetta’s prime mission is to orbit and land on a comet in 2014, so this asteroid flyby was just a little lagniappe.

You know the more we look into space – the more we see asteroids out there in our cosmic neighborhood. Looking for the big ones and making sure they have not painted a bullseye on, say Cleveland…is an important mission. Or at least it should be – for years the scientists who study Near Earth Objects had to fight for funding – but Washington may finally be listening…and that is good news if you happen to be the man in charge of looking for big rocks that could really ruin our day. His name is Don Yeomans and I Skyped him at Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

That is all we wrote for this week…thanks for being with us – please tell your friends about us – have them watch us on Youtube or iTunes.  We sure would love some help from you. Check out our painless payment option at spaceflightnow.com/twis. Email us – twis@spacefligthnow.com or tweet us @thisweekinspace. Check out the blog version here.  Thanks so much to our sponsors Binary Space and the Coalition for Space Exploration.  We really appreciate it. Next time – time flies – we will celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project…we’ll talk to Tom Stafford and Alexi Leonov about that warm patch in the middle of the Cold War – and we’ll tell you which movie inspired the mission the real life mission…that’s on the next “This Week In Space”  – we’ll see you then.


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