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