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Book Reviews

Cosmos and Culture

March 29th, 2010

Cosmos & Culture – Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context, edited by Steven J. Dick and Mark L. Lupisella; NASA History Series (NASA SP-2009-4802); Washington, D.C.; CASI Price: $25.00. GPO Price: $61.00; 2009. Note: Other commercial vendors such as are also expected to sell this book. Also, a PDF version of this book can […]

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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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Ask the Expert

Suborbital Vehicles Take to the Sky

March 27th, 2010

The skies over Mojave, California’s Air and Space Port have seen significant suborbital traffic recently.

On March 20th, Masten Space Systems flew their automated Xombie craft to its highest altitude yet: 1,046 feet. That test hop above the desert landscape is a milestone-making flight in the Masten effort to create affordable access to the edge of space.

Two days later, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo was flown for the first time underneath its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane for some three hours. That craft is designed to help shape a six passenger, two pilot suborbital spaceliner system for Virgin Galactic, an enterprise bankrolled by UK billionaire, Sir Richard Branson.

The SpaceShipTwo “captive carry” flight on March 22 signals the start of an aggressive series of shakeout flights of the passenger-carrying craft set to continue throughout the year.

John Gedmark, Executive Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation was quick to flag the significance of the two milestone test flights over the Mojave Desert as “another step on the path towards commercial suborbital flights to space.”


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International Space Station, Space Shuttle, NASA

NASA Flight Readiness Review sets April 5 for Shuttle Discovery’s Lift Off

March 27th, 2010

NASA formally established April 5 as the launching date for the shuttle Discovery on a 13-day re-supply mission to the International Space Station, following a Flight Readiness Review at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday.

The lift off is scheduled for 6:21 a.m., EST.

Discovey’s crew of seven astronauts has trained to deliver research gear and other supplies intended to sustain the 220 mile high orbiting laboratory long after NASA’s space shuttle fleet is retired, currently scheduled for late September.

The astronauts plan three spacewalks to replace an external ammonia coolant tank and a gyroscope used to manage the internal temperatures of the station and keep the one million pound outpost oriented as it orbits the Earth.

The flight is the second of five missions planned by NASA in 2010 to complete the assembly of the International Space Station, while bringing the near three decade long shuttle program to a close. President Obama has asked Congress to extend station operations from 2016 until at least 2020, a measure that has the support of NASA’s 14 international partners as well as many U.S. lawmakers.

During Friday’s readiness review, top space agency managers were briefed on mission preparations and plans. The agenda included an assessment of a leaky helium valve in the system that pressurizes Discovery’s aft, right orbital steering system.

The small leak was discovered earlier this month and caused by a valve unexplicably stuck in the open position. During the flight, the helium pressures will be managed using a pair of downstream regulators to compensate.

“We understand the failure well enough to go fly,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, who chaired the readiness review. “We reviewed that in detail. We’re ready to go fly.”

Managers were not influenced by pressure to meet the shuttle’s scheduled retirement date, John Shannon, NASA’s shuttle program manager, told a news briefing.

If shuttle managers had decided to repair the valve, Discovery would have been rolled from the launch pad to a hangar. The flight would have been re-scheduled for July and NASA would have proceded with a mission now set for mid-May.

Even with the juggling of the schedule, the agency could retire the shuttle fleet by the end of December, using funds from the NASA’s fiscal 2011 budget, Shanned added.

The 2011 fiscal year begins Oct. 1, and the proposed spending plan includes $600 million for another three months of shuttle operations.

Veteran astronaut Alan Poindexter will lead Discovery’s mission.

His crew includes pilot Jim Dutton; flight engineer Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger; lead robotics officer Stephanie Wilson; spacewalkers Rick Mastracchio and Clay Anderson. Naoko Yamazaki of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will supervise an ambitious cargo exchange.

The cargo includes three major pieces of scientific equipment:

1. The Window Observational Research Facility, or WORF, which includes cameras, spectral sensors and camcorders for Earth observations. The assembly will surround a high quality optical window in the station’s U. S. Destiny laboratory module for studies of climate change, land and sea formations as well as weather-related crop damage.

2. The Muscle Atrophy Research and Exercise system rack, or MARES, will provide a means of assessing which exercise regimes are the most effective in countering the loss of muscle mass experienced by astronauts during their lengthy exposures to weightlessness.

3. The Minus Eighty Laboratory Freezer for ISS, or MELFI, will preserve blood, urine and saliva specimens gathered as part of astronaut medical experiments. The freezer will store samples of plants and microbes collected as part other biological experiments as well.

Discovery will also deliver a new water generating device, called Sabatier. The device mixes carbon dioxide gathered from the breathing air of the space station with hydrogen to produce drinking water and methane that is vented outside the station.

As time permits, the Discovery astronauts intend to focus on educational activities that illustrate advances in robotics.

Metcalf-Lindenberger, a former high school Earth science and astronomy teacher as well as a cross-country coach, will lead the effort, which is expected to include question and answer sessions with students at the Naval Post Graduate School of Monterey, Calif., and the Eastern Guilford High School of Gibsonville, N. C.

She joined NASA in 2004 as the agency’s fourth educator astronaut.

Currently, NASA scheduling shows the shuttle program’s final missions scheduled for launching on May 14, July 29and Sept. 16.

Each of the final missions is intended to equip the orbital laboratory with scientific equipment and other supplies needed to sustain station operations well beyond the shuttle’s retirement.

A 32-page study released this week by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin predicted a high probability the final mission would not be launched until January 2011.

The space agency has budgeted $54 million in workforce overtime to help meet the internal September 2010 projection.

The Inspector General’s projections are based on historical averages for days between shuttle launches, both for the entire history of the program as well as the historical record since missions resumed in the aftermath of the 2003 shuttle Columbia accident.

An additional extension beyond December could force NASA to take funding from other agency activities.


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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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