Archive for the ‘Hubble’ Category

“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' – 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 – June 20, 2010

June 20, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is now available!  Give us a watch…

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Falcon 9 Launch. Source: Chris Thompson/SpaceX

Hello and Welcome – I had a long interesting talk with the president of the Constellation Nation – ex officio – Mike Griffin. I asked him what he things about the success of Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 test launch – you may be surprised at his response – I also asked him about the latest skirmish in the war between old and new space.  The full answer – and much more – coming up after we check the rest of the weeks space news.

Let’s get started with some fire and smoke – at the Baikonur Cosmodrome – that’s the site and sound of the 24th Space Station crew leaving earth behind for a long stint at the orbiting outpost. On board the Soyuz Capsule – Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and NASA astronauts Shannon Walker and Doug Wheelock. Their arrival at the space station went well – the crew up there had an inkling they might be dropping by – so they dressed up in their fresh jumpsuits – and didn’t say they gave at the office their new station mates knocked on the door.  The arrival of Shannon Walker marks a minor milestone in space for those of you who keep track of the stats. For the first time ever – two women are a part of the long duration crew at the same time. Right now there is no room at the ISS inn – 6 station keepers are up there…working in the coolest science lab anywhere.

Among the experiments on the schedule — A new way to take a look at the world’s shipping traffic. The ESA-sponsored experiment is using the ISS to track ships from space.  All big ships are required to have on-board transponders, but the equipment really only works when the ship is close to shore.

The VHF radio signals that power the system have a horizontal range of just 40 nautical miles – so open ocean traffic is largely un-tracked.   But, as it turns out, the vertical range of those radio waves is much greater…all the way up the space station.  The experiment runs on remote control and will last for two years.

In the meantime, another NASA eye-in-the-sky is also keeping tabs on ships.  The MODIS instrument on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites captured these views of what you might think of as ship “contrails.”  It turns out the sulphur in a ship’s exhaust interacts with the water vapor over the ocean to form these bright streamers.  They wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye, but MODIS can sniff them out.

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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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New 'This Week in Space' – March 12, 2010

March 14, 2010

The latest edition of “This Week in Space” is now available.  Check us out!

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Hubble2Hello and welcome – President Obama will finally say something about his plan for NASA – but there are still mixed messages coming out of the space agency – as the space shuttle program winds down – and new commercial players try to spin up. And while SpaceX tried to figure out why a launch pad test ended before it really got started – We are told by the man in charge of the shuttle program that the fleet doesn’t have to stop flying after 4 more flights – it is just a matter of money…more on all of this in a bit – but first I have to tell you about tje Warner Brothers “IMAX: Hubble 3D” movie that captures some of the space shuttle’s greatest moments – and gives those of us who have never been to space – an idea of what it is really like to be there. I am talking about the IMAX Hubble 3-D movie – which premiered this week at the Air and Space Museum in Washington…The movie focuses on the last Hubble repair mission in May. NASA  bolted a 3-D IMAX camera into the payload bay of Atlantis – it captured the astronauts at work in a vivid big screen – in your face – kinda way.

Hubble1Leonardo DiCaprio narrates the film. Hubble 3D also includes scenes from the first Hubble repair mission – and the deployment of the telescope as well. But this time there is something different – IMAX took some of the most iconic images captured by Hubble – to the National Center for Super Computing Applications at the University of Illinois Ubrana-Champaign – there the filmmakers and the computer whizzes made those images 3-D – so in this movie not only do you feel as if you are flying on board the shuttle – you also are treated to an amazing 3-D odyssey through distant galaxies and nebulas. It’s an amazing ride…

Hubble3They rolled out the red carpet at the Air and Space museum for the premiere – the space glitterati – such as it is – was there in large numbers – to see the Hubble 3-D. Now Leonardo sent his regrets from a movie set in Japan – and the real star of the show – Hubble was unable to be there was well – so that meant the big stars of the evening were the crew members of STS-125 – decked out in their blue flight suits – ready for their closeups. The crew of course felt a ton of pressure to fix and improve Hubble for the last time – so you would think shooting the movie would be no problem at all. But get this – they only had 8 minutes worth of film in that 3-D camera in the payload bay. And the camera only shoots 30 seconds at a time. So they had to be extremely careful about when to say “action” – but they had trained for it long and hard – and it all paid off. I spoke to these John Glenn Steven Spielberg hybrids as they walked down the carpet.

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Geysers, Oceans and Dinosaurs

February 28, 2010
Jets on Enceladus.  Source:  Cassini

Jets on Enceladus. Source: Cassini

Saturn’s moon Enceladus is spewing out some impressive geysers of water ice.  The NASA/ESA Italian space agency team that flies the Cassini spacecraft just released this composite image captured in November showing about 30 of the jets near the south pole of that moon. The big question for those who are interested in life beyond our planet – could their be liquid water reservoirs beneath the surface?  As you know – wherever water is found in liquid form on this planet – you will find living things.  So…Let me be the first to tell any prospective Enceladians – we come in peace.

SMOS Image.  Source:  ESA

SMOS Image. Source: ESA

Another ESA satellite is focused on water as well – just a little closer to home…These are the first calibration images from the the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity – or (SMOS) mission.  – Launched in November this satellite is designed to help scientists better understand the water cycle on earth – and that will help them improve weather and climate models.

Jurassic Space.  Source:  Hubble Space Telescope

Jurassic Space. Source: Hubble Space Telescope

Kids love space and dinosaurs – so I have always believed if we could just put a dinosaur into space – we would have a nation of space loving high achievers in math and science…well voila…astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have found some galaxies that are tantamount to seeing a dinosaur wander into your backyard. It’s a group of small galaxies that are still in the early stages of formation – but they are much closer to us – only 166 million light years – and thus much younger than galaxies at a similar stage that scientists have seen before. For some reason these small galaxies waited 10 billion years to get together.  Now that’s a long courtship…see this story in video form here.

Watch Enceladus and SMOS stories on “This Week in Space” version 8 here:

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To the Moon? I think not, Alice….

February 24, 2010

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The NASA insignia.

Image via Wikipedia

(ed. note: these remarks are part of my testimony to the Senate Committee on Science and Transportation hearing “Challenges and Opportunities in the NASA FY 2011 Budget Proposal” on February 24, 2010)

Washington – we have a problem – there is an uproar across the land over NASA’s course change – and it says a lot about how the public is no longer in the loop with the space agency.

The headlines read “NASA cancels its Moon mission”. Now I would submit to you most people reading those stories had no idea were were heading back to the moon in the first place. And guess what? We really weren’t! The program – packaged as the “Vision for Space Exploration” – never got the promised funding – and its “vision” was clearly focused on the rear view mirror.

Constellation was touted as “Apollo on Steroids” but really it was a ninety-pound weakling – an uninspired attempt to bring back the magic. NASA was acting like the middle aged high school football hero who spends too much time in the local saloon telling tales of the glory days when he led his team to the state championships.

But the country has grown up and moved on – and it is time for NASA to get off the bar stool and do the same.

And that is exactly what I see in this budget. This is a grown up approach to space exploration – one that synchs the goals with national needs and budgetary realities. The space agency is getting a slap in the face. “Thanks, I needed that!” is what it should be saying. But that is not what we are hearing. Change is never easy.

But wait a minute – isn’t NASA supposed to be all about change? In fact, if it can’t embrace – no actually invent – change – we should close the whole place down.

But wait there is more – because as much as anything else – what we have here is a failure to communicate.

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Seasons in the Sun

February 13, 2010
Hubble Space Telescope.  Source:  NASA

Hubble Space Telescope. Source: NASA

Astronomers may have downgraded Pluto to dwarf planet status – not that there is anything wrong with that – but this denizen of the distant fringe of our solar system never stops triggering our imaginations. Check out these images from the Hubble Space Telescope – 384 of them in all – shot between 2002 and 2003.  lead investigator Marc Buie, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, calls it his best guess at a true-color appearance” of the dwarf planet. The images also show evidence of ice melting a refreezing as the seasons change – it takes Pluto 248 earth years to make its way around the sun – and you think this winter has been long and cold?

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Where's the Kaboom?

February 13, 2010
Source:  Hubble Space Telescope

Source: Hubble Space Telescope

And from our “What Are the Odds” desk – check out this Hubble image.   Astronomers first thought it was a comet – but now believe it shows the immediate aftermath of a head on collision of two asteroids traveling five times faster than a rifle bullet. Astronomers believe collision like this are relatively common in the asteroid belt – but they have never gotten to see one before.

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Hubble Hugger-In-Chief

January 15, 2010

Hubble Space Telescope.  Source:  NASA

Hubble Space Telescope. Source: NASA

If you are anything like me, you were on the edge of your chair last summer, watching the crew of the shuttle Atlantis grind out five marathon spacewalks for a final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Atlantis crew really hit it out of the park, installing some new instruments, and resurrecting some old ones that had seemed broken beyond repair.

The lead spacewalker was John Grunsfeld, on his third Hubble Servicing Mission.  I had the good fortune to do an unique underwater interview with him in the run-up to STS-125, as he practiced some of his tasks in the pool at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.  I even tried my hand with the pistol grip tool…that’s NASA-speak for an electric screwdriver…and believe me they just make it look easy.

So now Hubble is churning out great images like this – and should be for another decade…

But what now Columbus? What does a Hubble Hugger do for a next act?

The obvious choice: join the team at Hubble Headquarters.  That’s the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.  Grunsfeld – who has a PhD in physics – is the new deputy director.  I Skyped  him the other day to hear more about that final repair mission, and where he and where Hubble go from here.  Read the transcript, or watch below:

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