Sunday, February 12, 2012

NASA eyes establishing orbiting lunar outpost

Cue the Pink Floyd because NASA may be turning their lunar attention toward the establishment of an orbital station parked above the dark side of the moon, in a region of space known as the Earth-Moon libration point 2.

Libration points, also known as Lagrangian points, are places in space where the combined gravitational pull of two large masses roughly balance each other out, allowing spacecraft to “park” there. According to, a Feb. 3 memo from William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, a team is being formed at the space agency to develop plans to explore one of those points.

NASA hopes to assess the value of establishing a “human-tended waypoint,” near the far side of the moon that would join international partnerships along with commercial and academic participants.

The waypoint would serve as a gateway for the exploration of other destinations such as near-lunar space, asteroids, the moon, the moons of Mars, and ultimately Mars itself, according to the published report. NASA would likely depend on the use of the agency’s planned heavy lift rocket, also known as the Space Launch System, along the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle as “foundational elements,” which could be supplemented with inflatable habitat structures such as those being developed by Bigelow Aerospace. reported:

The memo spells out six strategic principles to help enable exploration beyond low-Earth orbit:

·         Incorporating significant international participation that leverages current International Space Station partnerships.

·         U.S. commercial business opportunities to further enhance the space station logistics market with a goal of reducing costs and allowing for private-sector innovation.

·         Multiuse or reusable in-space infrastructure that allows a capability to be developed and reused over time for a variety of exploration destinations.

·         The application of technologies for near-term applications while focusing research and development of new technologies to reduce costs, improve safety and increase mission capture over the longer term.

·         Demonstrated affordability across the project life cycle.

·         Near-term mission opportunities with a well-defined cadence of compelling missions providing for an incremental buildup of capabilities to perform more complex missions over time.

According to strategic space planners, an EML-2 waypoint could enable significant telerobotic science on the far side of the moon and could serve as a platform for solar and Earth scientific observation, radio astronomy and other science in the quiet zone behind the moon.

Furthermore, the waypoint could enable assembly and servicing of satellites and large telescopes, among a host of other uses.

If NASA succeeds in establishing an astronaut-tended EML-2 waypoint, it would represent the farthest humans have traveled from Earth to date, the memo points out.

Extended stays at EML-2 would provide advancements in life sciences and radiation-shielding for long-duration missions outside of the Van Allen radiation belts that protect Earth, scientists say.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

NASA's Kepler Misson Reveals New Planetary Systems

NASA's Kepler mission has continued to advance our knowledge of planetary systems with the recent discovery of 11 new systems hosting 26 confirmed planets. With the latest data now released by NASA the total number of planets revealed by Kepler has nearly doubled, and the number of stars known to have more than one planet that passes before their host star has tripled.

These discoveries are expected to help astronomers better develop our understanding of how planets are formed. The planets recently discovered range in size from 1.5 times to radius of Earth to larger than Jupiter. Fifteen of the planets range in size between that of Earth and Neptune, and further observations will be made to determine which worlds are rocky like Earth, and which have thick gaseous atmospheres more like Neptune. The planets found by Kepler orbit their host star between every six to 143 days, and all are closer to their host star than Venus is to our sun.

According to a NASA press release:

"Prior to the Kepler mission, we knew of perhaps 500 exoplanets across the whole sky," said Doug Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Now, in just two years staring at a patch of sky not much bigger than your fist, Kepler has discovered more than 60 planets and more than 2,300 planet candidates. This tells us that our galaxy is positively loaded with planets of all sizes and orbits."

Kepler identifies planet candidates by repeatedly measuring the change in brightness of more than 150,000 stars to detect when a planet passes in front of the star. That passage casts a small shadow toward Earth and the Kepler spacecraft.

“Confirming that the small decrease in the star's brightness is due to a planet requires additional observations and time-consuming analysis," said Eric Ford, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Florida and lead author of the paper confirming Kepler-23 and Kepler-24. “We verified these planets using new techniques that dramatically accelerated their discovery.”

Each of the new confirmed planetary systems contains two to five closely spaced transiting planets. In tightly packed planetary systems, the gravitational pull of the planets among themselves causes one planet to accelerate and another planet to decelerate along its orbit. The acceleration causes the orbital period of each planet to change. Kepler detects this effect by measuring the changes, or so-called Transit Timing Variations (TTVs).

“By precisely timing when each planet transits its star, Kepler detected the gravitational tug of the planets on each other, clinching the case for ten of the newly announced planetary systems,” said Dan Fabrycky, Hubble Fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz and lead author for a paper confirming Kepler-29, 30, 31 and 32."

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Life On Venus Or Not?

It wasn't taken too seriously, but the recent news that a Russian probe may have captured images of life on the surface of Venus was not immediately dismissed either.

We have come a long way from the days of believing that we are the only life in the universe (at least most of us have) and today it seems we are open to the idea life can exist not only as we know it, but also in ways which are completely alien to us.

When Leonid Ksanfomaliti, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, published his article in the journal Solar System Research, describing images taken by the Venera 13 landing probe (1982) which he posited could be alien forms of life, people took notice.

Why couldn't there be life on Venus? So what if the atmosphere is poisonous to us? So what if the temperatures would burn us to a crisp? Life on Earth often thrives in places where human beings wouldn't last five seconds. The bottom of the ocean, where pressures are so great we would be crushed instantly, not to mention the fact we cannot breathe underwater, is alive with an abundance of life.

However, despite the modest excitement generated by Ksanfomaliti's article, NASA today responded by saying the images in the photos were most definitely debris deposited there by the lander itself. In fact, in at least two of the images, one of the items in question had been discussed at great length at the time as being in the way of a soil sample probe. Meaning, engineers at the time knew exactly what it was and where it came from.

So, it now seems we are back to having no new evidence for life anywhere outside of Earth. But, we have certainly proven that earthlings are not only ready for the news, they are anxious to hear it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

ATK Liberty Meets Crew Development Milestone

Another milestone has been reached on the road to developing a commercial crew transportation system, as Utah based Alliant Techsystems, Inc. (ATK) and their Liberty Transportation System has successfully passed a critical review as a partner in NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Round 2 program.

ATK is an unfunded participant in the program under an agreement with NASA that allows the space agency and the company to share technical information during the preliminary design review phase of the program. Under the agreement ATK must meet five milestones, and the latest review was the third to be completed.

The Liberty system is derived from the now-defunct Ares design, and utilizes a derivative of the space shuttle’s solid rocket booster as a first stage engine along with an engine developed from the European Ariane 5 launcher as the second stage. ATK is a partner with the European space developer Astrium. The company anticipates achieving a first flight in 2013, with a successful crew launch capability in 2015.

According to the website

“This unfunded partnership with ATK on its Liberty systems brings expertise from around the globe and we are glad to contribute our more than 50 years of human spaceflight experience to this effort,” said Ed Mango, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager.

During the ISD, Liberty team members from ATK, its European-based partner, Astrium, and their subcontractors presented the status of Liberty’s system level requirements, preliminary design and certification process to representatives from the Commercial Crew Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and other NASA centers.

“With the SAA in place we have been able to work closely with NASA’s Commercial Program and receive valuable feedback as we develop the Liberty Transportation System,” said Kent Rominger, ATK vice president and program manager for Liberty. “We continued to develop Liberty with the goal of providing the safest, most reliable, cost-effective and capable launch vehicle for crew transport.”

The current SAA continues through at least March. The two milestones met earlier include a Requirements Status Briefing and a Technical Interchange Meeting for the Liberty Transportation System. Two additional milestones are scheduled to be completed under this SAA.

All of NASA’s industry partners continue to meet their established milestones in developing commercial crew transportation capabilities that will ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station, reducing the amount of time America is without its own system.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

SpaceX Delay Prompted by Simulation Results

Although the debut commercial flight of the SpaceX Dragon to the International Space Station has been postponed from the slated Feb. 7 launch date, is reporting that the capsule which is now expected to fly no sooner than late March has arrived at the Kennedy Space Center.

Last week California based SpaceX announced that the potentially historic flight would be delayed to allow time for engineers and NASA staff to address concerns over potential problems with the craft. ITWire is reporting that a simulation revealed issues that prompted the company to seek a postponement of the COTS-2 flight:

“a recent simulation (“sim”) of the spacecraft has apparently rang a few warning bells, and the launch has been slipped to no earlier than March 20, 2012, and possibly as late or later than the end of March.

The unmanned mission to the International Space Station (ISS) would have been the first flight of any commercial spacecraft -- and, as such, a very important event!

As the first commercial flight to the ISS, the SpaceX mission will be a historic one, and one that is much awaited by NASA in order to get back the ability to eventually launch astronauts back and forth into space.”

CBS News reported on January 20 that Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the commercial cargo program at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, had stated:

“There's a great deal of work ahead before everything is closed out and ready to go. As we both are proceeding toward the launch, SpaceX concluded that they just wanted to take some extra time to do additional testing to make sure this vehicle is as ready to go as it can possibly be, at least to the same level that they were for the previous launch."

 “NASA sources said the company ran into problems with the planned rendezvous profile needed to guide the Dragon capsule to the space station. NASA dispatched a veteran flight director and trajectory analysts to Hawthorne to help SpaceX get to the bottom of the issue.”

Further, “Sources also said SpaceX engineers had encountered an electromagnetic interference [EMI] issue with one or more components in the Dragon capsule.”

And, “A SpaceX spokeswoman confirmed that an EMI issued had been discovered during testing, but she characterized it as relatively minor."

"Likewise, Lindenmoyer downplayed the technical issues, saying ‘it's just good practice to wring out your hardware, your software, your operations to make sure you're in the best possible shape for a good successful mission.’”

SpaceX also admitted that additional work needed to be performed with regards to software testing in order to assure that everything was ready to go for the launch.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

iPad Plunges from Near Space and Survives

If you love Apple technology and you’re accident prone then an amazing product demonstration video that was recently posted online may be of interest to you. Or you may just like videos of objects being dropped from the very edges of space. Either way this clip is worth viewing:

The folks at Rhode Island based G-Form were so confident in their latest product’s ability to protect an iPad that they switched one on, tethered in below a weather balloon and sent it souring into the stratosphere. Spoiler Alert – there’s no need to lament about the fate of the tested and tortured tablet. It survives the 100,000 foot fall without damage, which is more than my daughter’s last iPod Touch can say about a trip to the kitchen floor.

The video showcases the ascent toward the blackness of space, and the panoramic curving view from altitude, then the rapid fall back to a rocky Nevada landscape.

G-Form manufactures protective gear for electronics and for pads for athletes. Their website boasts that their products absorb more than 90% of the energy in high impact collisions. The case featured in the video retails for $44.95. You may never find yourself concerned about your treasured tablet plunging from extreme altitudes, but for less than $50 it’s a safe bet that a drop in your driveway won’t result in destruction.

If you just like watching people torture iPads then check out the G-Form website which also features a video of 12-pound bowling balls being bounced off protected and unprotected iPads.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Russian Space Official Speculates on Anti-Satellite Attack on Probe

As the clock ticks down to the expected uncontrolled re-entry on Saturday of Russia’s failed Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, a leading Russian space official has interjected the possibility that the craft may have been disabled by an orbiting anti-satellite weapon.

When Phobos-Grunt first went awry following its launch on November 9, 2011, Vladimir Popovkin, the director of the Russian space agency Roscosmos had initially said that a flawed navigational computer was likely at fault.

Popovkin’s latest allegation did not include speculation as to what nation may have wanted to disable the craft, which was to have sampled and returned soil from the Martian moon Phobos. The probe became stranded in earth orbit when its rockets failed to boost the craft out of orbit and onto a trajectory to Phobos.

Popovkin has also recently claimed that radar emissions from a facility in Alaska, presumably HAARP, may have damaged the craft.

According to the N.Y. Times:

Mr. Popovkin’s remarks to the newspaper Izvestia were the first high-level suggestion of nefarious interference. A retired commander of Russia’s missile warning system had speculated in November that strong radar signals from installations in Alaska might have damaged the spacecraft.

“We don’t want to accuse anybody, but there are very powerful devices that can influence spacecraft now,” Mr. Popovkin said in the interview. “The possibility they were used cannot be ruled out.”

Mr. Popovkin also suggested that equipment on the spacecraft may have broken down while the vehicle was stored on the ground, waiting for the time when Earth and Mars would be in the right places in their orbits for the mission to proceed, something that happens only every two years. “If we had not sent it to Mars in 2011, we would have had to throw it away,” he said of the craft.

The interview came at a time of rising anti-Americanism in Russian politics, and may have been intended mostly for a domestic audience. Russian officials often drop hints of foreign meddling, for example in stirring the recent street protests in Moscow; such comments are usually taken to mean the United States.

Mr. Popovkin’s remarks stood out in stark contrast to the cooperative spirit of recent Russian civilian space endeavors carried out in partnership with NASA, the European Space Agency and other foreign partners. Though Russia maintains a military wing of its space program, confrontation and even competition with the United States in space largely vanished with the end of the cold war.

The two powers called the space race a tie and agreed to build the International Space Station together; now that the American space shuttles are retired, NASA astronauts fly to the station aboard Russian rockets.

Mr. Popovkin did not directly implicate the United States in the interview. But he said “the frequent failure of our space launches, which occur at a time when they are flying over the part of Earth not visible from Russia, where we do not see the spacecraft and do not receive telemetric information, are not clear to us,” an apparent reference to the Americas.

Russia has not succeeded in sending a spacecraft to Mars since the 1980s. An attempt in 1996 to launch a Mars lander that could burrow below the planet’s surface failed because of a flaw in the rocket that carried it.

Phobos-Grunt, which took about five years to build and cost $160 million at current exchange rates, was launched from the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan on Nov. 9; it also carried a small Chinese Mars orbiter.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Work Progresses on Orbital Sciences Spacecraft in Virginia

Although much attention has been devoted to next month’s Commercial Orbital Transportation System, or C.O.T.S. test flight of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, another competitor for C.O.T.S. has been toiling ahead in anticipation of their own upcoming test flight.

Orbital Sciences Corp. is busy readying their Cygnus spacecraft for a first-quarter 2012 launch from their facilities at Wallops Island in Virginia. Orbital Sciences said they will update their launch schedule early in February when the company releases their quarterly financial results. They expect to fly an initial demonstration flight, followed by a demonstration flight to the International Space Station later in the year.

An image posted on the Orbital Sciences website depicted technicians in Virginia working on the command modules of spacecraft being readied to fly cargo to the International Space Station this year.

The most recent schedule calls for a maiden flight of the company's Antares rocket, formerly known as the Taurus II, in the first quarter of this year, followed by a Cygnus demonstration flight to the International Space Station in the next quarter. Work continues at the Wallops Island site to construct a new launch pad for the upcoming missions.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

MSL Trajectory Maneuver Planned for Jan. 11

The Mars Science Laboratory is getting ready to make some moves. Already about 75 million miles from Earth on its 352-million mile journey to Mars, the spacecraft is slated to perform a series of thruster firings on January 11 which will leave the MSL’s Curiosity Rover on a more precise course for its planned August landing at Gale Crater.

The 175 minute long sequential firing of the craft’s eight thruster engines will be the biggest maneuver slated during the voyage. The initial trajectory of the MSL following the mission’s November 26, 2011 launch intentionally misses Mars as to avoid the risk of the spacecraft’s upper stage hitting the planet and introducing Earth microbes into the Martian environment. The upper stage was not cleaned to the same level as the spacecraft itself.

Information posted about the mission on the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory website said the upcoming maneuver will impart a velocity change of about 12.3 miles per hour, or 5.5 meters per second.

The update stated:

"We are well into cruise operations, with a well-behaved spacecraft safely on its way to Mars," said Mars Science Laboratory Cruise Mission Manager Arthur Amador, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "After this trajectory correction maneuver, we expect to be very close to where we ultimately need to be for our entry point at the top of the Martian atmosphere."

The mission's schedule before arrival at Mars on Aug. 5 in PDT (Aug. 6 in Universal Time and EDT) includes opportunities for five more flight path correction maneuvers, as needed, for fine tuning.

The Jan. 11 maneuver has been planned to use the spacecraft's inertial measurement unit to measure the spacecraft's orientation and acceleration during the maneuver. A calibration maneuver using the gyroscope-containing inertial measurement unit was completed successfully on Dec. 21. The inertial measurement unit is used as an alternative to the spacecraft's onboard celestial navigation system due to an earlier computer reset.



Saturday, January 07, 2012

ESA Cargo Mission Progresses Toward March Liftoff

While the eyes of many space observers are focused on the upcoming historic launch of a SpaceX Dragon on the first commercial cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station, slated for Feb. 7, at least one other cargo mission is set to rendezvous with the station over the next few months.

Work is underway at the Arianespace launch center in French Guiana for the planned March 9 launch of the latest European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, the ATV-3 Edoardo Amaldi, named for a noted Italian physicist. At least one additional ATV mission is planned, the ATV-4 Albert Einstein.

According to the Arianespace website:

Arianespace is readying the first Ariane 5 for launch in 2012 from French Guiana following delivery of this heavy-lift workhorse yesterday at the Spaceport by its industrial prime contractor, Astrium.

The Ariane 5 ES vehicle is now in the Spaceport’s Final Assembly Building following its transfer from the Launcher Integration Building – where it underwent integration of its core cryogenic stage, solid propellant boosters, equipment bay and EPS upper stage.

This version of Arianespace’s workhorse heavy-lift launcher is now ready to receive its payload: the no. 3 Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo resupply vessel developed by Europe for servicing of the International Space Station.

The latest ATV is named after Italian physicist Edoardo Amaldi and will carry an estimated 6,960 kg. of dry cargo, propellant, water and gas when it lifts off next March 9 from French Guiana.

Arianespace is entrusted with the orbiting of ATVs under contract to the European Space Agency. The company lofted ATV no. 1 (named after Jules Verne) in March 2008, which was followed by the launch of ATV Johannes Kepler this past February.

The Ariane 5 heavy lift rocket arrived at Kourou, French Guiana on December 20, 2011. The ATV’s cargo was loaded in late November, and will carry a payload of 2,900 kg. of propellant for its own propulsion system, 860 kg. of Russian propellant for the International Space Station’s engines, 285 kg. of Russian-supplied water, 102 kg. of gas (consisting of air, oxygen and/or nitrogen), and 2,450 kg. of dry cargo (composed of such items as food, clothing and spare parts), according to mission logs on the Arianespace website. All cargo was loaded in clean room conditions as the ATV becomes an integral part of the I.S.S. while docked at the station.