Archive for the ‘Discovery’ Category

“This Week In Space” – August 28, 2010

August 29, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is now out.  Please watch!

Source: Hubble Space Telescope

We begin with an arrival of a spacecraft that aims to tell us how the universe formed.  The  2.1 billion dollar Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer arrived at Kennedy Space Center as it gets prepped for its flight to the Space Station. It will be mounted on the space station to search for antimatter, dark matter, and strange matter – and it will also search for cosmic rays.  It’s a spacecraft that almost never made it to space after being built.  The mission to fly it was canceled after the Columbia accident in 2003.  But AMS had some strong supporters in Congress, and NASA managers reshuffled plans to fly it.  It’s the last big piece station hardware to go up shuttle.  Principal Investigator Samuel Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has high hopes for the science that AMS will conduct on orbit.

We have checked and rechecked and double checked the detector, and we are now quite confident, we will stay on the space station, for its lifetime.  For the next 20 years when you look at space and see the space station, there is one very very precise detector to collect data.

AMS is scheduled to fly aboard Endeavour on what at the moment is the last scheduled space shuttle mission set for February 26th 2011.

But first things first, before STS-134 delivers the AMS to the station, Steve Lindsay and the STS-133 crew will be visiting the orbiting outpost on Discovery’s last flight to space.  That mission is currently slated to lift off November 1st.  OV-103 is currently in its Orbiter Processing facility undergoing final preps for rollover to the VAB on September 8th.  The media recently got a chance to take a look at some of cargo they’ll be taking up to the ISS – including Robonaut 2, as well as the Permanent Multipurpose Module and an Express Logistics Carrier filled with spare parts and supplies.  The crew was recently at KSC for a Crew Equipment Interface Test – that’s a last chance for the crew to personally look over the orbiter and payload before flight.  For these final missions, NASA is getting the public involved in selecting some of the wake-up songs that rouse the astronauts out of bed every morning on orbit.  Traditionally, crew members’ family and friends make the picks…but now you can get in on the action too.  Check out songcontest.nasa.gov for details.  And a final word before we leave shuttle behind, NASA has not yet officially announced whether or not the Atlantis will get one final flight next year, but they are kicking a prospective schedule.  You might want to pencil June 28, 2011 on your calendars for STS-135.  We’ll you know when you can ink that in.

International Space Station. Source: NASA

Meanwhile in space, things are getting back to normal and science activities have resumed now that the International Space Station’s radiator problems have been put to bed. With flight engineer Shannon Walker at the controls of the station’s robotic arm, astronauts Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson conducted three marathon spacewalks to swap out a failed ammonia pump that shut down half the station’s cooling system for a couple of weeks earlier this month.  The spacewalkers hit some frustrating snags while trying to disconnect the broken pump, especially a balky ammonia line called M3 that repeatedly stuck in place, and leaked ammonia as well.   Afterward, Wheels said the secret to their ultimate success was going out the hatch with the right attitude about  unexpected  problems.

I think the greatest thing that I’ve learned on my earlier EVA’s is just to expect that, just take a deep breath, think about different ways that you can finesse the piece of hardware and listen to what your ground trainers are telling you from the ground, and don’t give up trying.  And so we kept at it.  M3 became my giant through this whole thing that I had to face out there.  And we did it together and we needed both of us on either end of the line to get it, to just find that sweet spot to mate it up and demate it as well.  So I don’t know it sort of became the villan for us, and we sort of needed a villan to fight against when we were out there and it became a real challenge for us and we were able to rise to the challenge as a team.

SpaceX has conducted a high-altitude drop test of its Dragon spacecraft designed to ferry cargo – and eventually crew – to the ISS.  An Erikson “Air Crane” helicopter dropped a Dragon test article at an altitude of 14,000 off the California coast to test the capsule’s parachute system  as well as recovery operations.   SpaceX says the exercise met 100% of test objectives.  SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a dummy Dragon spacecraft  into space in June.  The company is planning another launch later this year that will put an operational Dragon into orbit, and return it to Earth.

The Mars Science Laboratory rover – also known as Curiosity – continues to take shape in its clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.  Engineers have now attached its robotic arm.  It was so heavy that they had to hoist it  into place using a crane.  The arm is tipped with a suite of instruments including a camera, a spectrograph and a drill that will core out and deliver samples to other instruments on the rover’s deck.  Curiosity is set to launch to Mars late next year.

And speaking of Mars launches, it was thirty-five years ago that NASA launched the Viking missions to Mars – Viking 1 on August 20th and Viking 2 on September 9th, 1975.  Each probe consisted of an orbiter and lander.  In their day,  Viking 1 and 2 were the most successful interplanetary probes ever deployed to the red planet – beaming back color images of the Martian surface and scooping up soil samples for analysis.  It would be nearly 20 years before Mars Pathfinder returned for further exploration of the surface.

Artist's rendering of Kepler 9. Source: NASA

The holy grail for astrobiology buffs is finding an Earth-sized, Earth-like planet.  That hasn’t happened yet (we’ll be leading the show with it when that happens!) but there are a couple of interesting developments on the planet-hunting beat this week.  Scientists working with the Kepler spacecraft have identified a planetary system orbiting a sun-like star called Kepler 9.  The new solar system includes two Saturn-sized gas giants and possibly a slightly-larger-than-earth sized planet orbiting very close to the star.  No chance of Earth-like conditions though…it’s just too hot.   Also this week, researchers working with the European Southern Observatory announced they’ve identified a solar system with at least five and maybe as many as seven planets orbiting a sun-like star located 127 light years away in the constellation Hydrus.  And one of those two unconfirmed planets is thought to be roughly Earth-sized and also orbiting very close to its sun.  Again, too hot for life.  So we’ve got new solar systems breaking out all over.  No pale blue marbles though.

Erupting volcanoes have been in the news this summer – and no I am NOT going to try to pronounce the name of that volcano in Iceland.  But take a look a cosmic volcano, erupting out of the black hole at the center of galaxy M-87.  These images from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory combined with radio telescope data from the Very Large Array show the black hole blasting gas and energy out.  The good news – air travellers in Europe have nothing to worry about with this volcano – it’s 50 million light years away.

And finally, we leave you with this time-lapse video of earth from space, shot by NASA astronaut and Mr. “Saturday Morning Science” himself, Don Pettit.  I’ve spent my whole career in TV and I can tell you, most everything looks better in forward.  Turns out Earth is no exception.  Night is even cooler than day.  Check out those green auroras when they zip by…absolutely incredible.  Pettit is headed back for a second tour of duty on the ISS next year.  What are you going to wow us with next time, Don?  It’s going to be hard to top this!

Time for us to hit the stop/eject button for this week.  Thanks for watching…please check us out regularly.  Also, please think about tossing us a few bucks at spaceflightnow.com/twis, we’re kind of singing for our supper here with this show..send us an email twis@spacelfightnow.com,  tweet us @thisweekinspace. Check out the blog here.  Thanks so much to our sponsor, Binary Space.  We really appreciate your ongoing support.  Join us next time for all the news off the planet.  Miles O’Brien will be back next week – we’ll see you then.

“This Week In Space” – August 14, 2010

August 15, 2010

Check out the latest edition of “This Week In Space.”

International Space Station Source: NASA

Hello and welcome – they call them quick disconnect valves – but apparently on the International Space Station – they don’t always live up to their name. One of them – that connected a faulty ammonia pump to the station’s cooling system sent NASA into a tiger team frenzy of troubleshooting and head scratching this week. first time they tried to disconnect it – it spring a huge leak of ammonia – nasty stuff…so they reattached it and then tried again on the next walk – at first it wouldn’t budge. But in the end, the solution was precisely what you or I would have done if it was a pipe under the sink at home – they shook the darn thing like crazy until it came free. Spacewalker Doug “Wheels” Wheelock employed the elbow grease – spacewalking sidekick Tracy Caldwell Dyson was at his side. It was the second spacewalk to replace the pump and get that cooling system back on-line. When it failed – the station still had one other set of operative radiators – but the reduced capability created a significant brown out for the 6 person crew.

Veteran astronaut and spacewalker Dave Wolf was helping lead the effort on the ground to figure out how to solve case of the stubborn valve. I spoke with him via Skype.

Former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and his teenage son Kevin survived a horrific plane crash in Alaska this week that killed five people, including former senator Ted Stevens.  They were on a fishing trip when the amphibious twin otter they were in plowed  into the side of a mountain in bad weather.  Both O’Keefes are banged up pretty badly but are expected to survive. Sean served as NASA Administrator from 2002 to 2005 – he was sent there by the Bush White House to tighten the reins on the space station budget. He ended up leading the agency through the Columbia accident – and offered up a text book example of expert crisis management. Sean was the man who signed on to the idea of sending yours truly to space – an idea that ended with the loss of Columbia. He is a good friend – and I wish him and Kevin a speedy recovery.

A dawn rocket launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station lit up the sky over central Florida Saturday.  That’s an Atlas V rocket, and the payload is the AEHF-1 satellite.  Its one of what will be a network of four military satellites designed to provide global, secure, protected and jam-resistant communications for our armed forces.  Hopefully our troops will have better communication than i get with AT&T on my iPhone.

Good news Space Tweeps. – it’s official NASA will hold another tweet-up at KSC for the next shuttle launch – that’s STS-133, currently scheduled for November 1 (but you knew that).  They are fantastic events – and if you are prone to tweet – you really should put your 140 characters in the ring. This is a good way to satisfy your assignment to see a shuttle launch before it is too late.  Registration opens at noon on Tuesday, August 24, and closes at noon on Wednesday, August 25.  If you want to know more, go to www.nasa.gov/tweetup.

Hard to believe it’s now been six years since the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn. And it is still a very busy space probe. So busy it just got another extension – through 2017 – giving it a chance to observe the summer solstice in Saturn’s northern hemisphere.  Here’s a cool new movie from Cassini.   The spacecraft was getting some close-up images of Saturn’s F-ring, and purely by chance captured these images of a globular star cluster passing though the field of view.  That’s NGC 5139, or Omega Centauri – nearly 16 thousand light years away.

As long as we are talking clusters – here’s a long exposure Hubble Space Telescope image of a galaxy in the Coma Cluster, 320 million light years away.  this is a spiral galaxy called NGC 9411 captured face-on.  And the Hubble folks have all kinds of questions about this picture of  NGC 4696.  This galaxy is not a perfect spiral – in fact it curls around on itself, kind of like a question mark.   Astronomers are scratching their heads about it – they have all kinds of questions about why it is  shaped so strangely, and what those filaments that stretch out from it might be. We’ll let you know if they find some answers…

Hubble is a third of the triumvirate of telescopes NASA called the Great Observatories – the other two are Chandra, and Spitzer – together these space scopes see the universe in the optical, x-ray and infrared wave lengths.  Now imagine if they could work together – like the Justice League –  This is a composite image – a super-space-scopes mash-up – of two colliding galaxies located about 62 million light years away.  The Chandra data is in blue, the Hubble data in gold and brown, and Spitzer data in red.  These so-called Antennae galaxies started colliding about 100 million years ago…and they are home to highly active star-forming regions. to infinity and beyond indeed!

Mars. Source: Hubble Space Telescope

Two anniversaries worth noting this week.  Fifty years ago, NASA launched Echo-1, it’s first communications satellite.  It was basically a big mylar balloon – able to bounce television, radio and TV signals cross-country and even across continents.  And five years ago, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched from Cape Canaveral.  MRO has become a workhorse for NASA – imaging the surface of Mars with unprecedented clarity, scanning for minerals and water, monitoring Martian weather, and serving as a communications relay for robotic missions on the surface.

Which brings us to our favorite simulated Mars mission – well I guess it’s the only simulated Mars mission – you know it by now – 6 men entered a human sized hamster habitat in Moscow – and will spend 520 days there pretending to go to Mars, explore the surface and then come back. We have now gone past the seventy day mark – which means they are about 15 percent done! and the video diaries they are posting on YouTube show no signs of reality show style discontent. Here is Romain Charles showing one of the…er…highlights – air sampling:

So Romain what’s up with the white socks and sandals and the wife beater t-shirt? I think that is a fashion don’t on Mars as well…just saying.

And on that note – I am outta here – you can email us a twis@spaceflightnow.com – or tweet us @thisweekinspace – the blog version of this podcast is at milesobrien.com. But here is the most important thing – please go to spaceflightnow.com/twis – and send us a few bucks – we really need you help – and if you don”t i’ll start wearing a wife beater – and white socks and sandals. Is that extortion? Sorta, I suppose. thanks to our most loyal sponsor ever – Binary Space – we really appreciate your support. We’ll see ya next time.

“This Week In Space” – August 7, 2010

August 8, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is out!  David Waters is in for Miles O’Brien this week.

International Space Station. Source: NASA

One spacewalk down, at least one more to go in NASA’s efforts to remove and replace a failed ammonia pump that’s crippled part of the International Space Station’s radiator system.  Astronauts Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson conducted the longest spacewalk in station history – 8 hours, 3 minutes – attempting to switch out the pump with a spare.  Unfortunately, removing the ammonia umbilicals from the old pump turned out to be a lot more difficult that anticipated, and there was significant  ammonia leakage from one of the lines as well.  The spacewalkers quickly fell behind on the timeline.   In the end, they had to wrap up the EVA with the broken pump still in place.  Ground controllers are now regrouping, and will need to re-plan the second spacewalk to try to make up for lost time.   And ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini says a third spacewalk may be in the offing.

I will tell you we’ve lengthened the amount of time from now until we get this pump running.   I would tell you that it would take a lot of good luck, and somebody coming up with a really short tweak to the EVA for us to get to the point that we could start that ammonia pump after the next EVA.  I really do think we are going to end up with three EVA’s.  So I think we are going to end up being in this condition, this risk posture, a few more days than we had originally planned.

There will be no doubt be developments in this story daily.  Please check in with us at Spaceflight Now for all the latest news.

The full Senate approved its compromise version of the NASA authorization bill for the 2011 budget late on Thursday – by voice vote with no discussion – and then they skedaddled out of town for the August recess.  The Senate legislation would add a final shuttle flight to the manifest, extend the life of the space station through 2020, fund commercial space activities, and start work on a new heavy lift rocket that’s supposed to be ready for orbital missions by the end of 2016.  But, the forward plan for the space agency remains in limbo for the foreseeable future.  The House of Representatives, is working on its own, very different, version of a plan…that preserves key parts of the Constellation program, slashes funding for commercial space, and puts that heavy-lift rocket championed by the Senate on the back burner.  The soonest the full House will vote on their version is September – and then compromise legislation will have to be hammered out in a conference committee.  So…if you are holding you breath for this all to be wrapped up soon…it’s gonna be a while.

While the wheels of government turn slowly, workers at the Kennedy Space Center are getting pink slips as the shuttle program winds down.  Commerce Secretary Gary Locke toured KSC this week along with NASA brass and Representative Suzanne Kosmas of Florida.  Locke sits on a White House task force aimed at improving the economy on the Space Coast as the clock ticks down for shuttle.  He met with about a dozen workers who will soon be hitting the unemployment lines.  The task force will be submitting a report to Obama this month on the prospects for helping the workforce through the tough transition ahead. Let’s hope they can come up with some good ideas.

And speaking of shuttles, it seems we are all going to have to wait a little longer to hear from NASA where the orbiters are headed after the program ends next year.  The agency had said it would announce in July which museums would get shuttles – but that deadline has come and gone with no word.  NASA spokesman Mike Curie told our friend Robert Pearlman over at collectSPACE that a final decision has been postponed because  the dates for the final two shuttle missions have slipped…and while the powers-that-be ponder whether or not to add an additional flight for Atlantis next summer.  Here’s what we know:  the shuttle Discovery will be going to the Air & Space Museum, which means NASA shuttle test article, Enterprise, currently housed there but never actually flew in space, also becomes available.  We’re in standby mode to find out where Atlantis and Endeavour will, er, land.

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'This Week In Space' – July 11, 2010

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?

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'This Week In Space' – June 27, 2010

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.

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'This Week In Space' – April 10, 2010

April 11, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is hot off the presses.  Check us out!

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Discovery launch. Source: NASA

Hello and welcome – and happy Yuri’s night – hard to believe it has now been 49 years since the first human being left the planet – and 29 years since the first shuttle flew – we’ll check in with one of the founders of the global Yuri’s night celebration – in a little while – see what is in store this year –

But first – let’s talk about the 131st space shuttle mission – currently “in work” as they say in the space business. I must admit – I am pretty lucky to have witnessed a lot of shuttle launches – and each of them is beautiful in their own special way – like a snowflake I suppose…but this one stands out – for one thing – we got a great view of Discovery’s destination – the international space station – as it flew overhead in the predawn darkness shortly before launch…then came the launch itself,

Those of us at the cape were able to see Discovery with eyes only – for a full seven and a half minutes – no one can remember anything like that – and then after Discovery was out of view and safely in space – were were left with this spectacular scene as the sun rose…remnants of the shuttle plume lit up like a pastel painting…

Discovery commander Alan Poindexter had to dock his craft at the station without the benefit of a radar system that failed. It is the same device that allows the orbiter to send out streaming video (or what we used to call TV)…and so that meant they had to record the heat shield inspection – and then send it down to earth using the station’s system.

The joint crews successfully attached the space equivalent of a PODS moving crate to the station – the Leonardo Multipurpose Logistics Module – in it – about 17 thousand pounds of gear and supplies – including some new crew sleep quarters…a fancy exercise machine that will give researchers a better idea about how physically fit the station-keepers are…and a device that ads cameras, spectrometers and other sensors to better observe the earth as it passes below the station.

They do see some cool things up there – look at this shot from crew member Soichi Noguchi of the Aurora Boraealis – or Northern Lights – he tweeted that one down.

Three spacewalks are planned for the 13 day mission.

Late as this is in the shuttle program – there is still room for some firsts as well as lasts – there are four women on the  combined shuttle station crews – a space record. And no – none of them stopped and asked for directions.

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This Week In Space – April 2, 2010

April 3, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is available!  Check us out

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Discovery. Source: NASA

Hello and welcome –  I am taking the week off – doing some diving with my 17 year old son in the Cayman Islands…would love to be with you – but this one trumps TWIS hands down…So while I am diving – the shuttle Discovery has been getting ready to go in the other direction.

Don’t forget to join us for the launch – we are the best place to watch it all unfold. Our coverage on Spaceflight Now begins at 2am Eastern – 0600 GMT. Ouch. Hey with four launches left – I promise not to complain…

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

The Mars Rover Spirit missed a communications session with with ground controllers this week, which likely means it has gone into hibernation mode as winter descends on Mars’ southern hemisphere.  Spirit’s operators knew this was coming.  The rover has been stuck in a sand it for nearly a year – without a tow truck in sight…  In January, with winter coming, mission managers gave up trying to drive to concentrate on better positioning the rover so that its solar panels would be more optimally tilted toward the sun.  Unfortunately, that didn’t work very well.  The best guess as to what has happened is that Spirit’s batteries have drained and there is not enough sunlight hitting the solar panels to recharge them.   Will the rover survive the long cold winter and wake up six months from now to resume it’s science mission?  We’ll keep you posted.

Expedition 23 Crew

A Soyuz rocket carrying members of the Expedition 23 crew to the International Space Station has blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazhakstan.  Before making their way to the launchpad, Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kominenko, and Tracy Caldwell Dyson ran the gauntlet of Russian pre-launch rituals, which include watching a movie called “White Sun of the Desert” the night before launch, sipping a glass of champagne, signing a door at the Cosmonaut Hotel, getting blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest, and taking a ceremonial leak on the tire of one of the crew buses – women can take a pass on that last one if they want, which was probably a relief to Tracy Caldwell Dyson.  She also may have started a new tradition – singing to her spouse before launch.
Once they arrive at the ISS, the new crew members will only have a few days to settle in before house guests arrive aboard the shuttle Discovery.

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This Week In Space – March 26, 2010

March 28, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is available now – check us out!

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Source: Virgin Galactic

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.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of ArizonaIt 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.

Source:  Hubble Space TelescopeAnd 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…

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This Week in Space – March 19, 2010

March 21, 2010

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Discovery at launchpad 39A. Source: NASA

Two million parts – all of them form the low bidder – as Wally Schirra  once famously quipped – if you put those parts together just right – you’ve got yourself a space shuttle – the problem is – just about every single one of them has to be working perfectly before a shuttle ever clears the tower.  But exceptions can be made….and that is what the shuttle launch team is doing for this next launch. With Discovery sitting on the launch pad for its penultimate flight – a helium valve  failed. The helium is used to make sure there is pressure in the fuel lines that feed the Orbital Maneuvering System engines – which handle the big course changes in orbit. Fixing the valve means a roll back to the the hangar – and a big delay. So the shuttle team will try to verify that some regulators downstream of the valve are working just fine. If so, it means they will have confidence they have only lost one layer of redundancy – and thus give Discovery its launching papers.

Source:  WISENASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer – or WISE has captured an image – Charles Foster Kane would have liked to see – rosebud….
this one is no sled though – it is a cosmic blossom in a cluster of stars in the Berkeley 59 – which sounds a little like a group of sixties anti war radicals…anyway…the blue dots are the stars…and they are formed by the orange dust cloud in the middle – and the green – those are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – of course…you can find those on earth in barbecue pits…for some reason I am hungry…WISE is also hunting for asteroids – and it has found more than a dozen that are near to earth – and we didn’t even know we were there. You’d be WISE to listen to this story – Chicken Littles.

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Shuttles and Astronauts

February 28, 2010
Endeavour lands at the Kennedy Space Center.  Source:  NASA

Endeavour lands at the Kennedy Space Center. Source: NASA

The Space Shuttle Endeavour was fresh off its night time landing at the Kennedy Space Center. The 6 person crew – led by Marine Colonel George Zamka – the guy they call Zambo – logged a successful mission to the Space Station – installing the Tranquility Node – with its stunning Cupola. Matter of fact station keeper Soichi Noguchi watched Endeavour streak through re-entry  “He tweeted that “The view was definitely out-of-the-world.”

Not a haiku – no

But he uses left side brain

I cut him some slack

I’m a poet – bet ya didn’t know it…

Discovery in the Vehicle Assembly Building.  Source:  NASA

Discovery in the Vehicle Assembly Building. Source: NASA

From Haikus to minuets – TWIS is taking you upscale this week – with the precisely choreographed moved from horizontal to vertical – no I am not talking about getting out of bed with a hangover –

I am speaking of Discovery’s move from the orbital processing facility – or hangar – to the vertical assembly building for mating. Don’t worry teachers – shuttle mating is G rated. It’s all about connecting the orbiter to its big burnt orange external fuel tank – which has the solid rocket boosters attached to it. The finished product – the space shuttle stack – is slated to begin its slow roll to the launch pad on March 2nd. Launch to the space station is set for April 5th. Don’t forget the best place to watch the launch is on Spaceflight Now.

When the shuttle stops flying – the US government will no longer be in the business of building spacecraft for its astronauts to fly into space. We can only hope this is a temporary suspension in membership of a very elite club. Still the Obama space budget says the National Research Council will take a hard look at role and size of the astronaut corps. No Bucks – no need for Buck Rogers. But in India – they are ready to invest some rupees on future Ramu Ramjets. The nation’s space agency says it is ready to join the club –  they are vowing to send a pair of astronauts into space in the next six or seven years…not wise to curry…

atk-logo-bgAnd from our very busy “last-ever ” desk – an item this week from Big Love Country – northern Utah…Rocket builder ATK staged its last test firing of a shuttle solid rocket motor. Since 1988, ATK has conducted 34 ground tests during to verify performance and safety margins – and test new materials. ATK says it will march ahead with a static test of an Ares 1 style booster – even though that program is a goner – NASA has already paid for it – and the show will go on.

Watch these stories from “This Week in Space” Version 8 below:

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