Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Curiosity launch prompts Apollo 13 question

The recent launch of the plutonium powered Mars rover Curiosity has one tech publication taking a look into the past to inquire about the fate of Aquarius, the Apollo 13 lunar module that served as a lifeboat for the crew during their perilous journey back to earth.
According to Florida Today’s Flame Trench space blog, the tech site Txchnologist asked, “Will NASA ever recover Apollo 13's plutonium from the sea?”  After being jettisoned when the crew boarded the Odyssey command module, Aquarius re-entered the atmosphere and her remains now lay deep below the Pacific Ocean in the Tonga Trench, which is 35,702 ft (10,882 metres) deep at its deepest point.
It is believed that the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) onboard survived the fiery plunge to Earth and remains intact, as extensive monitoring over the ensuing years has not revealed any radiation leak.
A similar unit powers Curiosity.
Florida Today noted:
Apollo 13 astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert were most the way to the moon on April 13, 1970, when a fuel tank explosion ripped through their Command Module, prompting the latter to make a now-famous call back to Mission Control:

"Houston, we've had a problem."
Which often is misquoted as:
"Houston, we have a problem."
No matter.
 The crippling explosion forced the astronauts to seek safe haven in the Apollo 13 Lunar Module, which was designed to ferry the crew to and from the surface of the moon. In this case, the astronauts reversed course and headed back to Earth in the Lunar Module.  
The saga of Apollo 13 remains an enduring (and endearing) fiber in the fabric of NASA’s legend. In other recent news, a checklist used by the crew to make calculations critical to their safe return to earth was sold at auction this week for $388,375. Commander Jim Lovell used the checklist to calculate the spacecraft’s position in space.
MSNBC reported that Dallas-based Heritage Auctions sold the checklist Wednesday as part of a batch of U.S. space program artifacts being offered during its "Space Signature Auction." The checklist was sold to an anonymous collector. A pre-auction estimated value for the checklist w
as $25,000.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

X-37B mission extended by U.S.A.F.

Air Force officials are normally very tight-lipped about their X-37B, a robotic mini-shuttle that was originally intended for manned missions by NASA before being pressed into flying classified missions, but they have confirmed the spacecraft’s present mission has been extended.
The experimental craft has been circling Earth for about nine months, but had been expected to land this week at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Today an Air Force official confirmed that the mission will be extended and a future landing date has not yet been slated, according to the Associated Press.
The space plane resembles a smaller version of the space shuttle, and the one presently in orbit is the second one to be flown. The first one landed itself last December after more than seven months in orbit. The Air Force has said the second mission was to further test the craft, but the ultimate purpose has largely remained a mystery.
Space.com reported:
The secretive X-37B robotic space plane is about to set its own space-endurance record on a hush-hush project operated by the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.
The craft, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle-2, was boosted into Earth orbit atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on March 5. Tomorrow (Nov. 30), the X-37B spacecraft will mark its 270th day of flight — a lifetime in space that was heralded in the past as the vehicle's upper limit for spaceflight by project officials.
"It's still up there," U.S. Air Force Maj. Tracy Bunko of the Air Force Press Desk at the Pentagon, told SPACE.com, noting that project officials planned for a 9- month-plus mission, "so we're close to that now."
The X-37B's staying power is made feasible by its deployable solar array power system, unfurled from the vehicle's cargo bay.
For now space watchers can only speculate on the craft’s mission and capabilities but many aerospace enthusiasts believe it is used for space-based reconnaissance and surveillance

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hope fading fast for Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft


Hope is fading fast for the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe that remains stuck in earth orbit, after a brief success last week by an European Space Agency tracking center in Australia in communicating with the $170-million spacecraft. Subsequent attempts to establish communications have failed according to the E.S.A., making it likely that the spacecraft will eventually fall back into the atmosphere and be destroyed.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed concern over a string of recent failed unmanned missions, saying the losses were a blow to Russia’s reputation of reliable space technology. Medvedev went as far as to suggest that those responsible could face criminal prosecution and imprisonment.

On Saturday, Medvedev told reporters, "Recent failures are a strong blow to our competitiveness. It does not mean that something fatal has happened, it means that we need to carry out a detailed review and punish those guilty," Medvedev told reporters in televised comments.

"I am not suggesting putting them up against the wall like under Josef Vissarionovich (Stalin), but seriously punish either financially or, if the fault is obvious, it could be a disciplinary or even criminal punishment," he said.

According to Spaceflightnow.com:

The European Space Agency's tracking station in Perth, Australia, heard radio signals from the orbiting spacecraft Tuesday and Wednesday, but more than a half-dozen listening opportunities since then have produced no communications, ESA officials said.
The signal acquisition was the first time anyone contacted Phobos-Grunt since shortly after its Nov. 8 launch on a Zenit rocket. Phobos-Grunt was designed to to retrieve samples from the largest moon of Mars and return them to Earth.
Fitted with a special feedhorn device to attenuate the power of its signal, the 49-foot dish at Perth received limited telemetry from Phobos-Grunt during both successful passes. ESA passed along the data to NPO Lavochkin, the Russian contractor for the mission.
During both successful communications sessions, engineers commanded Phobos-Grunt's transmitter to turn on and off. The Perth station received some information from the spacecraft, including about 400 telemetry "frames" and two-day Doppler data during Wednesday's transmission, which held a more stable link, according to Wolfgang Hell, ESA's service manager for the Phobos-Grunt mission.
Controllers uplinked more commands to Phobos-Grunt during a subsequent pass Wednesday, but officials haven't heard from the truck-sized probe since then.
"Our Russian colleagues provided a full set of tele-commands for us to send up," Hell said. "And Perth station was set to use the same techniques and configurations that worked earlier. But we observed no downlink radio signal from the spacecraft."

Presently orbiting at about 200-miles, the 29,000 lb. Phobos-Grunt is expected to succumb to the affects of drag and fall back to Earth early next year, possibly in late January or sometime in February. A specific time and location for reentry won’t be determined until the craft is about to plunge into the atmosphere. While the craft could pose a danger to populated areas, the odds of an individual being struck by space debris remains rare, the spacecraft is carrying a full load of propellant.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

NASA launches $2.5 billion MSL mission to Red Planet



Joy Crisp a deputy project scientist for the rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., called the liftoff "spectacular."
"This feels great," she said as she watched the rocket lift off from Cape Canaveral.
Pamela Conrad, deputy principal investigator for the mission at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said, "Every milestone feels like such a relief. It's a beautiful day. The sun's out, and all these people came out to watch."
The work Curiosity does when it finally arrives should revolutionize our understanding of the Red Planet and pave the way for future efforts to hunt for potential Martian life, researchers said.
"It is absolutely a feat of engineering, and it will bring science like nobody's ever expected," Doug McCuistion, head of NASA's Mars exploration program, said of Curiosity. "I can't even imagine the discoveries that we're going to come up with."

This mission has been more than 10 years in the making and the launch was delayed by more than two-years after an optimal window passed in 2009 when the craft was still not ready to be launched. Again, Space.com explains:

Curiosity's cruise to Mars may be less challenging than its long and bumpy trek to the launch pad, which took nearly a decade.  NASA began planning Curiosity's mission — which is officially known as the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL — back in 2003. The rover was originally scheduled to blast off in 2009, but it wasn't ready in time.
Launch windows for Mars-bound spacecraft are based on favorable alignments between Earth and the Red Planet, and they open up just once every two years. So the MSL team had to wait until 2011. That two-year slip helped boost the mission's overall cost by 56 percent, to its current $2.5 billion. But Saturday's successful launch likely chased away a lot of the bad feelings still lingering after the delay and the cost overruns.
"I think you could visibly see the team morale improve — the team grinned more, the team smiled more — as the rover and the vehicle came closer, and more and more together here when we were at Kennedy [Space Center]" preparing for liftoff, MSL project manager Pete Theisinger of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said a few days before launch.

Many aspects about the mission are unique including the scientific instruments on the plutonium powered rover, which should clock about 12-miles on the odometer in explorations around the Gale Crater landing site. The arrival on Mars will also be ambitious. Unlike the previous Mars rovers, Curiosity is too bulky to depend on air bags to cushion it’s landing. Instead it will be lowered by a jet-pack like descent stage from which it will be suspended by cables.

The coverage by Space.com’s Mike Wall includes many links to other mission related articles and an 800-kb PDF file about the mission.

TO READ MORE ABOUT THE MSL MISSION CLICK HERE

Friday, November 25, 2011

Curiosity Countdown T -1:00:00:21


Here's to hoping everyone had a happy thanksgiving and with about 24-hours remaining before Saturday's launch of the NASA's Mars Science Laboratory here's a wish for a successful launch, as the Curiosity rover begins its eight month journey to Mars.

Presently the MSL is tucked inside its Atlas V at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and scheduled for launch on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011, with a launch window from 10:02 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. EST. Weather is expected to be favorable as a cold front moves into the Space Coast region later today.  

The spacecraft should arrive at Mars in August 2012, with the Curiosity rover begins an ambitious mission to search for signs of water on the red planet, and the possibility of life supporting conditions. Curiosity would be the most advanced rover to land on Mars, and is set to explore the Gale Crater region, which contains a mountain rising from the crater floor.
         
Here’s the latest updates from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Ca.:

On Nov. 26, NASA Television coverage of the launch will begin at 4:30 a.m. PST (7:30 a.m. EST). Live launch coverage will be carried on all NASA Television channels. For NASA Television downlink information, schedule information and streaming video, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv . The launch coverage will also be streamed live on Ustream at http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl . If the spacecraft lifts off at the start of the launch window on Nov. 26, the following milestones are anticipated. Times would vary for other launch times and dates.
Launch
--The rocket's first-stage common core booster, and the four solid rocket boosters, will ignite before liftoff. Launch, or "T Zero", actually occurs before the rocket leaves the ground. The four solid rocket boosters jettison at launch plus one minute and 52 seconds.
Fairing Separation
--The nose cone, or fairing, carrying Mars Science Laboratory will open like a clamshell and fall away at about three minutes and 25 seconds after launch. After this, the rocket's first stage will cut off and then drop into the Atlantic Ocean.
Parking Orbit
--The rocket's second stage, a Centaur engine, is started for the first time at about four minutes and 38 seconds after launch. After it completes its first burn of about 7 minutes, the rocket will be in a parking orbit around Earth at an altitude that varies from 102 miles (165 kilometers) to 201 miles (324 kilometers). It will remain there from 14 to 30 minutes, depending on the launch date and time. If launch occurs at the beginning of the launch Nov. 26 launch window, this stage will last about 21 minutes.
On the Way to Mars
-- The second Centaur burn, continuing for nearly 8 minutes (for a launch at the opening of the Nov. 26 launch window), lofts the spacecraft out of Earth orbit and sends it toward Mars.
Spacecraft Separation
--Mars Science Laboratory will separate from the rocket that boosted it toward Mars at about 44 minutes after launch, if launch occurs at the opening of the Nov. 26 window. Shortly after that, the separated Centaur performs its last task, an avoidance maneuver taking itself out of the spacecraft's flight path to avoid hitting either the spacecraft or Mars.
Sending a Message of Good Health
--Once the spacecraft is in its cruise stage toward Mars, it can begin communicating with Earth via an antenna station in Canberra, Australia, part of NASA's Deep Space Network. Engineers expect to hear first contact from the spacecraft at about 55 minutes after launch and assess the spacecraft's health during the subsequent 30 minutes. The spacecraft will arrive at the Red Planet Aug. 6, 2012, Universal Time (evening of Aug. 5, 2012, PDT).

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE MARS SCIENCE LAB MISSION CLICK HERE

J.G. Wallace, Space Coast, Fl.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Contact with stuck Mars probe raises hopes

Two weeks after a post-launch glitch left the $170 million Russian Phobos-Grunt probe parked in earth orbit and out of contact with the Russian space agency, a ground based station in Australia has managed to establish contact with the spacecraft.
It’s unclear whether this contact will facilitate the resumption of the mission to land on the Martian moon Phobos and return a soil sample. The 13-ton spacecraft reached earth orbit as planned, but did not fire it’s engines as planned to begin it’s long journey to Mars. At this point it’s also unclear whether the window of opportunity for the probe’s journey remains open, or has passed.
MSNBC reported that the outlook for resuming the mission isn’t favorable:
On Tuesday, the Interfax news agency quoted Russia's deputy space chief, Vitaly Davydov, as saying that "chances to accomplish the mission are very slim." Then ESA said its tracking station in Perth, Australia, made contact with the probe late Tuesday (20:25 GMT, or 3:25 p.m. ET).
"ESA teams are working closely with engineers in Russia to determine how best to maintain communication with the spacecraft," the agency reported on its website Wednesday.
It's not clear what options are still available for continuing Phobos-Grunt's mission. Some reports from Russia have suggested that the opportunity for a round trip to Phobos and back has been lost. Davydov, however, said Russian engineers had until the end of the month to fix the probe's engines and send it on a path to Phobos.
Russian scientists could fix the problem if the probe failed because of a software flaw, but some experts think that the failure was rooted in hardware that's difficult to fix.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Snowy conditions anticipated at Soyuz landing site

All good things must come to an end, and as such the mission of the last space station crew of the shuttle era is winding down and preparations for reentry began earlier today for Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, U.S. astronaut Mike Fossum and Satoshi Furukawa of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The three men launched on June 8 aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket and were on orbit when the I.S.S. hosted the final visit of the space shuttle.
NASA plans live reentry coverage on NASA TV as the Soyuz undocks around 6:00 p.m. EST, heading back to earth for wintery reception on the frigid steppes of Kazakhstan, where more than 18 inches of snow blankets the recovery area. The de-orbit burn is scheduled for 8:32 p.m., with a landing time of 9:25 p.m. EST, about 30 minutes before  local sunrise.
Florida Today reported temperatures at the landing site are in the teens, with windy conditions and blowing snow:
The weather at the landing site, located about 35 miles northeast of the Arkalyk, has been "fairly severe," NASA mission commentator Rob Navias said this afternoon. A half-foot of fresh snow piled on already existing drifts over the past 24 hours. Temperatures at landing time are expected to be in the teens and winds will be blowing snow at 15 mph.
Fossum, Volkov and Furukawa launched June 8 and were aboard the station for the final space shuttle mission -- a supply run to the outpost in July. Fossum turned over command of the station to U.S. astronaut Dan Burbank on Sunday. Burbank and two Russian cosmonauts -- Anatoly Ivanishin and Anton Shkaplerov -- arrived at the outpost last Wednesday.
FOR LIVE COVERAGE OF THE SOYUZ REENTRY ON NASA TV CLICK HERE

Friday, November 18, 2011

NASA Picks Delta 4 Heavy to Launch 2014 Orion Test

NASA’s funding through the recently proposed congressional budget compromise is proving to be a mixed bag for future manned space programs. The Commercial Crew Transportation development efforts received less than half of what the Obama administration had requested.
But looking past low earth orbit efforts, the prospects seem good that NASA will conduct a 2014 test flight of their Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), also known as Orion. But the flight won’t be flown using the currently proposed Space Launch System, but rather using a Delta 4 Heavy, which would cost the agency about $370 million.
Johnson Space Center Director Michael Coats told Space News on Nov.17:
“We’ll know by next May whether we’re going to be able to find the money to do this and make a commitment,” Coats said. He also said the flight would be paid for out of the MPCV budget. “[W]e can’t take it out of SLS,” he said, referring to the budget for Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket the agency has been directed by Congress to build.
Coats spoke with Space News here after testifying before the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee. He was part of a panel that also included the directors of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Johnson, Kennedy and Marshall are responsible for developing and launching the Space Launch System (SLS) and MPCV.
Coats told lawmakers that he thought NASA was getting “a pretty reasonable deal” on the Delta 4 Heavy launch.
NASA said Nov. 8 that it wanted to stage a test flight of the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the Lockheed Martin-built spacecraft also known as Orion, in 2014 — about three years before the Space Launch System is scheduled to make its maiden flight.

TO READ MORE FROM SPACE NEWS CLICK HERE

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Congressional compromise chops NASA commercial crew development funds

A budget compromise that congress is expected to pass next week would cut by more than half the $924 million in funding requested by President Obama for the commercial crew program; potentially leaving NASA dependant on Russia for crew transport for an extended period of time.
According to Gannett, Congress is set to approve $406 million for the program that will replace the space shuttle — less than half of the $924 million that NASA originally requested.
The budgeted funding allocation for the commercial crew program, which teams the space agency with private companies to develop a new vehicle for taking astronauts into low Earth orbit, is part of a spending bill that will finance several federal agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in fiscal 2012.
Through the compromise legislation that was brokered by House and Senate negotiators, NASA would be allocated $17.8 billion; a decrease of $648 million from the Fiscal 2011 budget. The reduced funding would still facilitate the development of The James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope is a scientific priority for the space agency, and will receive the $529 million it needs to proceed with a planned 2018 launch.
According to Gannett, the telescope was potentially on the chopping block as lawmakers worked out a compromise funding plan:
House lawmakers had proposed giving the project nothing unless NASA identified programs to delay or eliminate in order to pay for the $8.8 billion telescope, which has been beset by cost overruns. Other NASA-related provisions in the budget deal would provide:
$1.2 billion for the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle being designed to carry astronauts into deep space.
$1.86 billion for the Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket that envisioned to carry Orion on a mission to an asteroid in the mid-2020s and to Mars the next decade.
$573 million related to retirement of the shuttle.
$2.8 billion for the space station.
Another provision would continue to bar NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy from engaging in bilateral activities with China unless authorized by Congress.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, called the deal "good news" for the space program. "This budget makes a major investment in the next generation of human spaceflight," he said.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Annual Autumn Meteor Shower to Peak Thursday

Spend enough time stargazing and you are bound to spot a meteor shower, but you may spend hours waiting for that “falling star,” to cast your wish upon. That is unless you are lucky enough to be outside and watching for the noted annual show given by the Leonids meteor shower.
It’s partially a matter of luck, mixed with location, like many things in life. In clear weather and without a lot of light pollution an observer of the Leonids can expect to see about 10-20 meteor showers per hour, as opposed to the average of 1-2 each hour in normal conditions.  The Leonids are expected to peak this Thursday evening.
This year luck and location may work against those viewing from North America, as the timing of the peak activity comes around 10:00 p.m. EST on Thursday night, when the radiant, the point in the sky from which the meteors appear to originate, is below the horizon. The meteors probably won't start to appear across eastern North America until after midnight, as the “the radiant,” or the point in the sky from which the meteors appear to originate, is below the horizon.
If you intend to try to catch a glimpse of this year’s display, Space.com recently offered a few viewing tips:
Find a location far away from city lights, and go out after midnight. Dress warmly and lie back comfortably on a deck chair. Look high in the sky, either to the north or south. Give your eyes sufficient time, 15 or 20 minutes, to get adapted to the dark. Avoid looking directly at the moon, as that will ruin your dark adaptation.
And then, be patient. You may watch for as long as half an hour without seeing a single meteor. And then suddenly you may see two or three in a row. Then, continue to be patient.
This is not a fireworks display, though meteor showers are sometimes advertised as such. Most meteors are faint and fast moving. Meteor showers are subtle things, most of the time not spectacular, but immensely rewarding. The meteors you see are all one-time events, each and every one. They are the final markers of comet Tempel-Tuttle, first seen 645 years ago in the year 1366.
By all means try to photograph these meteors. All that's needed is a dark sky and a solidly mounted camera capable of time exposures. Exposures of 5 or 10 minutes will be best. The stars will be curved trails because of the Earth's rotation; the meteors will be straight lines radiating from Leo. Try to point your camera so that the moon is blocked by a foreground object, to avoid overexposure.
TO READ MORE ABOUT THE LEONIDS AT SPACE.COM CLICK HERE

Monday, November 14, 2011

Soyuz launches to I.S.S. despite heavy snow

Snow can wreak havoc on almost any travel plans but posed no problem for the launch of a Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Expedition 29 crew members Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoly Ivanishin and Dan Burbank lifted off at 11:14 p.m. EST Sunday (10:14 a.m. Baikonur time Monday)  and are now on their way to the International Space Station (I.S.S.).
Expedition 29 Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa, Commander Mike Fossum and Flight Engineer Sergei Volkov presently on orbit await the arrival of their new crewmates. The Soyuz TMA-22 will dock to the Poisk mini-research module at 12:33 a.m. Wednesday, with the hatches scheduled to be opened at about 2:55 a.m. Shkaplerov, Ivanishin and Burbank are scheduled to live and work aboard the orbiting laboratory until March.

While the current crew on orbit wait for their colleagues they have been keeping busy with scientific research. According to a press release issued by NASA:

Meanwhile, aboard the orbiting outpost, Commander Mike Fossum worked with the Space Dynamically Responding Ultrasonic Matrix System (SpaceDRUMS), a suite of hardware that uses sound waves to allow experiment samples to be processed without ever touching a container wall. This allows materials to be produced in microgravity with an unparalleled quality of shape and composition. The goal is to develop advanced materials of a commercial quantity and quality, and help improve manufacturing processes on Earth.

Expedition 29 will end when Fossum, Furukawa and Volkov undock from the Rassvet mini-research module inside the Soyuz TMA-02M on Nov. 21. The outgoing trio will land in the steppe of Kazakhstan at 9:25 p.m. (8:25 a.m. on Nov. 22, Baikonur time). Expedition 30 officially begins when the Soyuz TMA-02M undocks. Burbank, who is making his third visit to the International Space Station, will take over station command in a ceremony scheduled to take place on Nov. 20.

His previous two visits were both aboard space shuttle Atlantis. He helped prepare the station for its first crew during STS-106 and helped install the P3/P4 truss during STS-115.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

NASA Enters New Era of Soyuz Dependency

While the launching of Soyuz rocket, the workhorse of the Russian space program for several decades isn’t a particularly historic event, tomorrow’s scheduled launch marks the beginning of a new and perhaps not so illustrious chapter in U.S. manned space exploration.

The stakes are high for the future of the International Space Station (I.S.S.). With the station currently staffed by a crew of three who are slated to return to Earth later this month, the success of the Monday morning launch from Kazakhstan is critical. If the three-man relief crew of two Russian cosmonauts and NASA astronaut Daniel Burkbank fails to arrive by their departure date the station will be left unmanned for the first time in more than ten years.

The mission marks the dawn of a new era of dependency on the Russian rockets, as it’s the first trip by astronauts to orbit since the shuttle program ended in July. According to the New York Times: “Daniel C. Burbank, Anton N. Shkaplerov and Anatoly A. Ivanishin are scheduled to launch at 10:14 a.m. Monday — which is 11:14 p.m. Sunday Eastern time — from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The trip, which was supposed to take place in September, was postponed after the failure in August of a Russian unmanned cargo rocket.

NASA officials expressed confidence that their Russian counterparts had diagnosed and corrected the problem. “The Russian commission has talked to us and explained the basis for their analysis,” said William H. Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA’s human exploration and operations mission directorate. “They’ve done everything we would do to make sure everything is fine, and we’re ready to go launch.”
Russia has had a rough year in its space endeavors. The problem in August was that the third stage of the cargo rocket shut down early; instead of reaching orbit, the spacecraft arced into a Siberian forest. There have been two other mishaps. Earlier in August, the failure of an upper stage of a different Russian rocket put a communication satellite in a wrong orbit. And last week, a Russian probe that was supposed to explore a Martian moon got mired in low-Earth orbit after its engines failed to fire. The probe, the Phobos-Grunt, is being monitored by Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, which is trying to re-establish contact and set it on course, but the chances for success look slim.

The reliability of rockets has traditionally been a strength of the Russian space program, and the problems with three different rockets this year may indicate underlying issues, said Scott Pace, a former NASA official who now directs the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “I hope there are full and frank discussions going on” between NASA officials and their Russian colleagues, Dr. Pace said.

When the three men arrive at their destination on Wednesday, the space station will temporarily be back to its full complement of six crew members. But then the three crew members currently in orbit will return to Earth. Another Soyuz with three more crew members is scheduled to launch next month. “Once we have the December flight, we’re pretty much back on a regular schedule,” Mr. Gerstenmaier said. Much of the scientific research on the station is controlled and monitored on the ground, and the impact of the delays on research was “modest,” he said.

The problems also pushed back the launching schedule for Space Exploration Technologies Corporation of Hawthorne, Calif. A test flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which lifts a capsule called the Dragon, was supposed to take place in September, carrying hundreds of pounds of supplies to the space station. But now that mission will not happen until next year. If it succeeds, SpaceX will begin regular cargo runs to the station.

TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE N.Y. TIMES CLICK HERE

Saturday, November 12, 2011

SpaceX Scouts For Future Launch Site For Commercial Missions

SpaceX is seeking a dedicated launch facility for their future commercial payload missions and according to founder and CEO Elon Musk the aerospace company is casting a wide net in their search process.
Speaking at the National Press Club, Musk said the company is seeking a commercial launch facility to accommodate an expected aggressive launch schedule in upcoming years. While NASA cargo and crew flights and other government or military missions would still be launched from either the Kennedy Space Center or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Musk hopes to operate a launch pad for commercial flights that would not be subject to outside scheduling constraints from other launches.
The company is exploring options of potential sites in Texas, Virginia, Puerto Rico or even in Hawaii. In all likelihood the site selected would have already been developed in some capacity for space launch operations, which would be more cost effective and less subject to local regulation than developing an all new facility. Other considerations for SpaceX to consider in selecting a new site would include the possibility that launches from the site could overfly populated areas.
Florida’s aerospace economic development agency Space Florida aims to keep as many of SpaceX’s future launches in the Sunshine State, and recently invested $7 million to help the company expand their facilities at  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station facilities. The state hopes to enable more frequent flights and it is possible that a former shuttle pad could be converted at KSC, or the state would invest in developing a new launch site in South Florida.
For now Musk is keeping all possible options on the table. According to an article in Florida Today, Musk said:
“It makes sense to concentrate the Air Force and perhaps NASA business at those two (federal) facilities, and then concentrate commercial launch activity at a commercial launch site, just as it occurs with aviation,” Musk told a National Press Club audience this fall.
With an all-commercial launch site, SpaceX is seeking more freedom to launch when and how it wants, with fewer of the restrictions on launch opportunities and access that apply on secure military facilities. The increased flexibility could enable more rapid launches, attract customers and reduce costs.
At least one more  SpaceX mission in 2011 is scheduled to launch from the Cape Canaveral facility; initially planned as a demonstration flight, the mission is now scheduled to dock with the International Space Station (I.S.S)  and will be carrying a cargo payload. Commercial cargo missions to the I.S.S. are anticipated to begin in 2012 using SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

NASA: New Upper Stage Engine Passes Major Test


NASA's development of the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) which will carry manned crews on future deep space missions was bolstered Wednesday by a successful test firing of the new J-2X upper stage engine.

SLS will carry the Orion spacecraft on future deep space missions planned to launch in 2021. One stated goal for a future deep space would land a crew on an asteroid by 2025. Developed by Rocketdyne, the J-2X was developed from the second-stage engine used on the Saturn V. The SLS will reuse the space shuttle main engines for the first stage, along with shuttle program  derived solid rocket boosters.

A NASA press release stated:

"The J-2X engine is critical to the development of the Space Launch System," Dan Dumbacher, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, said after the test at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. "Today's test means NASA is moving closer to developing the rocket it needs if humans are to explore beyond low-Earth orbit."

Florida Today's Todd Halvorson offered this account:

Mounted in a test stand at Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss., the J-2X engine roared to life as spectators looked on from a safe distance. A loud whoosh of bright white exhaust poured from its nozzle and then billowed for 8 minutes and 20 seconds — a first-time full-duration test-firing. The engine created an acoustical adrenaline rush.

“It did sound great, didn’t it?” said Michael Kynard, manager of the J-2X upper stage engine project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
A team of NASA and contractor engineers, many wearing loud-and-proud Hawaiian shirts, operated the engine from a nearby control center. Based on a quick look at the data produced, they said the $350,000 test appeared to be a success.


Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Russia Scrambles to save Mars Lunar Probe Mission

Russia has long been said to have a “Mars curse,” racking up a long string of failed missions to the Red Planet. As of now that curse has yet to be broken, but scientists are hopeful they can resolve technical issues with the Phobos-Grunt probe which is presently stuck in earth orbit before the craft tumbles back into the atmosphere.
Following a successful launch yesterday, Russia’s most ambitious space venture in years is now stuck in earth orbit, and scientists are racing against the clock to correct a guidance orientation fault on the Phobos-Grunt probe before the onboard batteries are exhausted and the unmanned $170 million craft is lost. The batteries are expected to remain charged for about two weeks.
Russia has launched a total of 16 missions to the Red Planet since the 1960s, yet none has successfully completed its goals. Prior to Wednesday’s launch of the Phobos-Grunt mission, the sophisticated Mars-96 spacecraft was lost in a failed launch.
Space consultant James Oberg told Space News that if controllers failed to bring the Phobos-Grunt back to life, the tons of highly toxic fuel it carries would turn it into the most dangerous spacecraft ever to fall from orbit. "About seven tons of nitrogen teroxide and hydrazine, which could freeze before ultimately entering, will make it the most toxic falling satellite ever," he said. "What was billed as the heaviest interplanetary probe ever may become one of the heaviest space derelicts to ever fall back to Earth out of control."
Oberg said such a crash could cause significantly more damage than the Russian Mars-96 that crashed in the Andes Mountains or the American USA 193 spy satellite that was shot down by a U.S. Navy missile in 2008 to prevent it from splashing its toxic fuel.
Russia won’t be the only nation disappointed if the probe to the Martian moon Phobos fails. The craft is also carrying China's first Mars satellite Yinghuo-1. If the mission succeeds, Phobos-Grunt should reach Mars late next year. After separating from the cruise stage and releasing Yinghuo-1 into Mars orbit, the main spacecraft would then maneuver itself into position to land on Phobos.
The two craft lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a Zenit rocket at 00:16 local time on Wednesday (20:16 GMT Tuesday) and were dropped off in an elliptical orbit around the Earth 11 minutes later. About two and a half hours later something went wrong. The cruise stage attached to Phobos-Grunt should then have made the first of two firings, to raise the orbit and to send the mission on to Mars.
Neither of those planned engine burns occurred. Reports suggest the spacecraft attempted to orientate itself in space using the stars, failed to pick them up and therefore did not execute the firings as planned.
Russian space officials told the BBC: "It looks like the engine system has not worked," Vladimir Popovkin, the head of the Russian space agency (Roscosmos), explained. "It seems it couldn't reorient itself away from the Sun towards the stars so the sidewall closed. It was foreseen by the flight program. Now, we have found its location, and we have to unpack the sidewall, to check the telemetry and after that we will restart the spacecraft control program to reboot the mission. The craft is in a support orbit. The fuel tanks were not jettisoned after the first switch-on." And he added: "I would not say it's a failure; it's a non-standard situation, but it is a working situation."
If the problem is simply a software issue and engineers can upload new commands, they have a chance of rescuing the mission. If the fault lies in a hardware malfunction, Phobos-Grunt may well be doomed.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM THE ASSOCIATED PRESSCLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT THE PHOBOS-GRUNT MISSION ON THE BBC WEBSITE


Monday, November 07, 2011

Voyager 2 Switches Thrusters to Conserve Energy

Just like many people do at that age, NASA’s 34-year old Voyager 2 space probe began to slow down. It’s not due to a reflection on the craft’s age, rather an energy saving protocol by the space agency to switch to a backup set of thrusters to save energy.

Voyager 2 has already travelled about 9 billion miles (14 billion kilometers) from Earth and is now beyond all the planets in our solar system. Both Voyager 2, and Voyager 1 are now in a region known as the heliosheath, the outermost portion of our solar system where the sun’s solar wind meet the interstellar medium.

As of this point on their journey neither craft has encountered an alien life form or been transformed into V’Ger, a destructive space probe sent back to earth in the 23rd Century to study mankind. The probe depicted in Star Trek: The Motion Picture was in fact Voyager 6, a fictional mission in the Voyager program.

Space.com reported:

Scientists at NASA's Deep Space Network sent the command to Voyager 2 on Nov. 4 to switch from its primary thrusters, which control the spacecraft's roll, to its backup set. They received a signal today (Nov. 7) confirming that the spacecraft had accepted the commands.
The change will save about 12 watts of power by allowing engineers to turn off the heater that keeps the fuel line to the primary thruster warm. With this energy efficient change, Voyager 2 should have enough power to operate for another decade, NASA officials said.
The Voyager probes launched in 1977 on a mission to survey Jupiter and Saturn, and managed to observe Uranus and Neptune as well. Voyager 1 is now the farthest manmade object in space, and the two probes are now on track to be the first spacecraft to study interstellar space.


Sunday, November 06, 2011

NASA Selects Space Florida to Manage Nano Satellite Challenge

Florida's legacy of space success and the resources of an experienced workforce on the Space Coast have been recognized again, as NASA has signed an agreement with the Space Florida Small Satellite Research Center of Cape Canaveral, Florida, to manage the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge.

The Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge is one of the space agency's recently announced Centennial Challenges prize competitions. The Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge is to launch satellites with a mass of at least 2.2 pounds (1 kg) into Earth orbit, twice within the span of one week. The new challenge has a NASA-provided prize purse of $2 million.

According to a joint press release issued by NASA and Space Florida, the state's aerospace economic development agency:

The objective of the competition is to encourage innovations in propulsion and other technologies, as well as operations and management relevant to safe, low-cost, small payload delivery system for frequent access to Earth orbit. Innovations stemming from this challenge will be beneficial to broader applications in future launch systems. They may enhance commercial capability for dedicated launches of small satellites at a cost comparable to secondary payload launches -- a potential new market with government, commercial, and academic customers.
"Monday's agreement between NASA and Space Florida for use of facilities at the Kennedy Space Center even better positions the organization for managing this new Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge," said Michael Gazarik, director for NASA's Space Technology Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Space Florida has extensive experience working with NASA, the FAA, the Air Force, commercial spaceflight companies and universities to advance their plans for spaceflight operations. We look forward to having the Space Florida Small Satellite Research Center overseeing the competition and bringing together innovative teams with creative problem-solving ideas."

Space Florida submitted a proposal last spring in response to a NASA solicitation for this partnership opportunity. They will now begin detailed preparations for the challenge, publishing rules and then registering competitors. The first competition launch attempt is expected to take place in the summer of 2012.

The Centennial Challenges seek unconventional solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation. Competitors have included private companies, student groups and independent inventors working outside the traditional aerospace industry. Unlike contracts or grants, prizes are awarded only after solutions are successfully demonstrated.

NASA's Centennial Challenges program provides the prize purse for the technology and innovation competitions. The competitions are managed by non-profit organizations that cover the cost of operations through commercial or private sponsorships.

In October, NASA awarded the largest prize in aviation history following Pipistrel-USA's win of the agency's CAFE Green Flight Challenge, sponsored by Google. NASA's $1.35 million first prize and a $120,000 second prize recognized competitors using electric airplanes to break all previous fuel efficiency records. The technology and innovation used in electric aircraft may end up in general aviation aircraft, spawning new jobs and new industries for the 21st century.
There have been 22 Centennial Challenges competition events since 2005. NASA has awarded nearly $6 million to 15 different challenge-winning teams. Centennial Challenges is one of the ten Space Technology programs, managed by NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist.
For more information about the program and descriptions of each of the challenge competitions, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/challenges

For more information about Space Florida and updates on the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge, visit: www.spaceflorida.gov/r-d