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‘Space and Science’

Constellation Program

A Launcher Without a Rocket

March 29th, 2010


Anyone need a $500 million, 355-foot steel tower for launching rockets into space?

There’s one available at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Brand new, never been used.

The mobile launcher has been built for a rocket called the Ares 1. The problem is, there is not yet any such thing as an Ares 1 rocket – and if the Obama administration has its way, there never will be.

President Obama’s 2011 budget kills that rocket, along with the rest of NASA’s Constellation program, the ambitious back-to-the-moon effort initiated under President George W. Bush.

People here were shocked when they heard the news last month. They were already facing the imminent retirement of the aging space shuttle, and the likelihood of thousands of layoffs in the contracting corps but many hoped to find a Constellation job, stay on site and essentially just switch badges.

Now suddenly, they’re looking at no shuttle, no Ares 1, no NASA-owned spaceship of any kind in the near future. American astronauts for years to come will hitch rides to space on Russian rockets.

“It’s almost like losing manned space flight,” said Michele Kosiba, 44, a quality inspector for United Space Alliance.

The space center is a unique place, built on a flat expanse of marsh and scrub that knuckles into the Atlantic. Long, straight, government roads are lined with ditches patrolled by alligators. Launch towers stand sentinel on the horizon. From here, the United States launched some of its most spectacular national achievements. But the decision to kill Constellation has shrouded this part of the world in an unfamiliar gloom.

People are dismayed and bewildered. Obama has gotten the message and will fly to the Kennedy Space Center on April 15 to hold a space conference and a town hall meeting. He is certain to point out that his budget actually boosts funding for NASA. The new NASA strategy shifts the task of launching astronauts to low Earth orbit from traditional government contracts to commercial contracts. If the private sector can create a taxi to space, NASA can focus on new technologies and longer journeys in the solar system.

“We think it’s exciting,” NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr., a former astronaut, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “It will enable us to do things we can only dream about today. It will foster new industries, spur innovation, create jobs and lead to more missions, to more destinations, sooner, safer and faster.”

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Cassini at Saturn: “Outta Sight” Imagery of Mimas

March 29th, 2010

The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn continues to churn out mind-blowing imagery. Collected last month during its closest flyby yet of Saturn’s “Death Star” looking moon, Mimas, new imagery is available for your perusal. The verdict from Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader and Director of CICLOPS at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado: “They […]

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On Brontosauri and Dark Asteroids

March 26th, 2010


Imagine you’re a Brontosaurus with your face in a prehistoric tree top, munching on fresh leaves. Your relatives have ruled planet Earth for more than 150 million years. Huge and strong, you feel invincible.

You’re not.

Fast forward about 65 million years. A creature much smaller and weaker dominates the Earth now, with brains instead of brawn. Its brain is a lot larger than yours relative to its body size – plenty big enough to conceive a way to scan the cosmos for objects like the colossal asteroid that wrought the end of your kind.

The creature designed and built WISE, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, to search for “dark” objects in space like brown dwarf stars, vast dust clouds, and your nemesis – asteroids. WISE finds them by sensing their heat in the form of infrared light most other telescopes can’t pick up.

“Our instrument is finding hundreds of asteroids every day that were never detected before,” says Ned Wright, principal investigator for WISE and a physicist at the University of California in Los Angeles. “WISE is very good at this kind of work.”

Visible-light telescopes conducting past asteroid surveys may have missed a large population of darker asteroids that WISE is now flushing out of hiding. Most of the asteroids WISE is finding are in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but a fraction of them are different-they’re the kind of Earth-approaching asteroids that send shivers all the way down a Brontosaurus’ spine.

“WISE has only been in orbit for about three months, but we’ve already found a handful of asteroids classified as ‘potentially hazardous,’ including one seen in 1996 but lost until re-observed by WISE. To be named ‘potentially hazardous,’ an asteroid has to pass within about 5 million miles of Earth’s orbit. One of our discoveries will cross Earth’s orbit less than 700,000 miles away.”

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Russians Unveil Rassvet

March 26th, 2010

From Universe Today

Russian space managers unveiled a science beauty today (March 25) in Florida, namely the ‘Rassvet’ research room which serves as Russia’s newest contribution to the International Space Station. Although ‘Rassvet’ was built entirely in Russia, the module is hitching a ride aboard the American Space Shuttle Atlantis as the primary cargo for the STS 132 station assembly mission slated to blast off soon in May 2010. ‘Rassvet’ translates as ‘Dawn’.

I was quite fortunate to inspect ‘Rassvet’ up close today during a press briefing and photo op inside the clean room at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility in Port Canaveral, FL and also speak with the top Russian space officials from RSC Energia who are responsible for her construction. Astrotech is situated a few miles south of the shuttle launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center from which she’ll depart Earth.

NASA is launching ‘Rassvet’, formally known as the Mini Research Module-1, or MRM 1, as part of a complex barter agreement among the partner nations of the ISS to share the costs of assembling and operating the massive orbiting outpost.

MRM-1 will be attached to the Earth- facing (nadir) port of the russian Zarya control module at the ISS. See diagram below showing location of MRM-1 and other components on the Russian Orbital Segment of the ISS.

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Last Shuttle Flight Jan. 2011

March 26th, 2010

From Florida Today

NASA will probably miss its goal to retire the shuttle fleet this year, with the final launch likely to slip to January 2011, the space agency’s inspector general reported Thursday.

But shuttle managers are hustling to meet the current flight schedule, and they expect to spend up to $54 million on overtime to try to meet the September schedule – far less than the $200 million a month they would need to sustain shuttle operations into 2011, the report found.

Four shuttle flights remain, under a retirement schedule set in 2004 after the Columbia disaster.

NASA officials initially said the final shuttle flight would take place by Sept. 30, 2010, and it remains on the launch schedule for Sept. 16. More recently in budget documents, they said it would take place by the end of 2010.

But in a 32-page report released Thursday, Inspector General Paul Martin said both estimates are unrealistic.

President Barack Obama’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget includes $600 million to cover flights through December. Flights beyond that would need additional funding.

“It is the intent of the (space shuttle program) to complete the manifest without any sacrifice to safety or mission success,” William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations, wrote in a letter responding to Martin’s report.

Originally, NASA’s inspector general had used projections that the final flight might not happen until next March.

“However, given that the last four shuttle flights all launched within the schedule margins, our analysis now predicts that the last of the four remaining shuttle flights will launch in January 2011,” Martin wrote in his report.

After the shuttle’s retirement, NASA plans to ferry people to the International Space Station aboard Russian rockets until the next American rocket is developed. Obama has proposed relying on commercial rockets to reach the space station when they become available.

His budget proposal would cancel NASA’s Constellation program to develop an Ares rocket. But many in Congress want the program to continue.

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Opportunity Finds Something New

March 25th, 2010

An enhanced-color image of the Chocolate Hills rock on Mars shows a strange coating that one researcher has called a "blueberry sandwich." The coating appears blue in this picture due to the false-color effect, but the naked eye would see this scene in shades of rusty red. Chocolate Hills is about the size of a loaf of bread. Click on the picture for a larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornel

NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity has found a Martian rock covered in weird material as its odometer hit a major milestone this week, with the long-lived robot completing equivalent to a half-marathon on the Red Planet.

Opportunity, now in its seventh year on Mars, found the odd Mars rock during the past six weeks studying investigating a crater called “Concepción.”

The crater is about 33 feet (10 meters) in diameter, with dark rays extending from it, as seen from orbit, which made it a target of interest for rover inspection because they suggest the crater is young.

The rover made the pit stop to investigate the crater on its long journey to the large crater Endeavour, which is still about 7 miles (12 kilometers) away. It was while Opportunity was at Concepción that the rover surpassed 12.43 miles (20 kilometers) of total driving, about the length of a half-marathon.

Opportunity has driven farther than any other wheeled robot to land on Mars. Its robotic twin Spirit, which landed in January 2004 just weeks ahead of Opportunity, has driven about 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers), while NASA’s Sojourner rover, a small robot that landed in 1997, could drive only about a third of a mile (about half a kilometer) from the Pathfinder base it landed with.

Mars rock oddity

With new software that allows Opportunity to photograph rocks and other aspects of the Martian terrain and decide for itself what is worth closer inspection, the rover took an up-close look at a few rocks ejected by the impact that created Concepción.

What Opportunity has seen are chunks of the same type of bedrock it has seen at hundreds of locations since landing in January 2004: soft, sulfate-rich sandstone holding harder peppercorn-size dark spheres like berries in a muffin. The little spheres, rich in iron, gained the nickname “blueberries.” But these rocks have some unusual twists as well.

“It was clear from the images that Opportunity took on the approach to Concepción that there was strange stuff on lots of the rocks near the crater,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, principal investigator for Opportunity and Spirit. “There’s dark, grayish material coating faces of the rocks and filling fractures in them. At least part of it is composed of blueberries jammed together as close as you could pack them. We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Opportunity used tools on its robotic arm to examine this unusual material on a rock called “Chocolate Hills.” In some places, the layer of closely packed spheres lies between thinner, smoother layers.

“It looks like a blueberry sandwich,” said Matt Golombek, a rover science-team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

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