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International Space Station

ISS to get ‘Man Cave’

March 24th, 2010

From Universe Today

There might be a new favorite hang-out for astronauts aboard the International Space Station later this year. The Multi Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) known as Leonardo – which will be going to the ISS on the upcoming STS-131 mission carrying cargo and supplies – will be transformed after the mission into a Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM), and brought up to stay on the station on STS-133 as a storeroom for supplies. But it might also become a haven to get away from it all.

“The thought is, the PMM might become sort of a ‘man cave’,” said Mike Kinslow, the Boeing payload manager out at Kennedy Space Center. “It won’t have all the background noise of fans, computers and other equipment running like in the laboratories, so it will be a quieter atmosphere that might appeal to the astronauts during their off-duty hours.”

No plans for a big screen TV Kinslow said, but there will be ports for computers, and since internet is now available on the ISS, Leonardo could be the location of choice to compose emails to loved ones back home, or do a little Twittering.

Another interesting piece of hardware scheduled to fly on the PMM is the Robonaut 2, NASA’s second generation of dexterous robots with a human-like torso that can work with tools and one day are envisioned to be able to do EVA work outside the ISS. But for now, R2 will be tested inside the station in zero-g. “It will be used on orbit for routine maintenance indoors only.” said Kinslow, “This is not an external unit.”

It has a “head” with a vision system, with hands that can do work, controlled by virtual-reality-like operation. Any chance R2 could be programmed to serve drinks or bring food into the man cave?

Turning Leonardo into a permanent module will take some work, said NASA Payload Manager Joe Delai. “Once it returns from this flight we will beef up the external shield and change things internally to become a permanent module. It will be about a four month process to get it ready.”

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Shuttle Tech

March 24th, 2010

From Motherboard tv

Watching astronauts repair one of the most complex machines ever built while flying 300 miles above the Earth in the new IMAX film Hubble 3D may be a ‘religious experience’. But the vehicle they took to get up there can sometimes feel as small and ramshackle as an old 18-wheeler.

The soon-to-be-retired Space Shuttle is 30 years old and remarkably relies on an on-board flight computer much less sophisticated than the phone you’re reading this on: yup, the craft’s General Purpose Computer uses just one MB of RAM. It kind of puts your memory problems into perspective, now doesn’t it?

The shuttle’s reliance also goes to show how much humans can do even with old tools, provided they’re reliable. The aging ship – perhaps the most complex machine ever built – is “truly a remarkable piece of hardware,” astronaut (and erstwhile IMAX cameraman) Scott Altman told Motherboard at a recent reception for the film, where he was wearing his blue flight suit while juggling a glass of gold-colored liquid and a mini hamburger.

Besides the fact that the computer just works, there’s at least one benefit of relying on a machine slower than a 386 with a purpose-built operating system: “You never get that blue screen of death!”

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Mars Gale Crater Flyover

March 24th, 2010

From Universe Today

The videos are created using actual, high-resolution data from the HiRISE camera – DEM (Digital Elevation Model)- also known as DTM Digital Terrain Model files.

“The videos were produced using software I originally designed to visualize the MOLA data in 2001,” Adrian said. “The software, called Mars Explorer, is a real-time rendering engine for visualizing 3D terrain data interactively.”

Adrian said the Mars Explorer software renders at about 60 frames per second on a PC with a moderately powerful graphics card when not outputting video. “When creating videos it runs at about one tenth of that speed. The 4 minute 50 second Candor Chasma video took about half an hour to generate,” he said. “The software requires the elevation and image data in raw binary format so I first have to pre-process the HiRISE DTM and image data into this format. This process takes about an hour.

One of my favorites is one Adrian created of flying through Gale Crater, above, which includes the sun in the sky and even “glare” of the sun off the “lens” of your camera (or the windshield on your Mars hovercraft! – the sun and glare can also be seen in the Olympus Mons video, top). But he says the earlier videos he created, such as the Gale crater animation, did not utilize the full image resolution that he now has by making his software more memory efficient. “I can now use the data at its full resolution,” he said. “I have to crop some of the larger datasets such as the Mojave crater DTM because they require more system RAM than I currently have.”

About the sun and glare, Adrian said, “The shadows in the Gale crater animation do not correspond correctly to the position of the sun. The sun should be to the left and possibly higher. The sun glare is an effect I programmed that brightens the whole screen by an amount depending on the angle between the sun and view direction.”

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International Space Station

Shuttle Takes on Cargo

March 24th, 2010

From Florida Today

Kennedy Space Center workers today plan to install more than 15 tons of cargo inside shuttle Discovery in preparation for an April 5 launch, a date that could be made official during Friday’s flight readiness review at the spaceport.

Shuttle program managers met Tuesday to discuss results from weekend tests that confirmed the health of helium regulators needed to fire steering jets on Discovery’s right, rear side.

The regulators became more critical after engineers determined a helium tank valve became stuck fully or partially open during the loading of propellants earlier this month.

“The testing over the weekend gave (managers) even more confidence in the health of the regulators, which is the most important factor in that system,” Kyle Herring said. “This is one of the more redundant systems on the entire vehicle.”

The stuck valve wouldn’t prevent a launch or threaten the safety of Discovery’s crew, Herring said, but could cut short a planned 13-day mission to re-supply the International Space Station under failure scenarios considered unlikely.

The valve could only be replaced by rolling Discovery off its launch pad, causing a lengthy mission delay.

Managers will discuss one other special issue during Friday’s readiness review: the performance of ceramic inserts stuck between protective tiles on portions of the orbiter. One came loose near a window during Endeavour’s recent flight.

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Many Flavors of Moon Ice

March 24th, 2010


Since the surprise discovery last year of trace amounts of water on the moon, scientists have been redefining their concept of Earth’s rocky neighbor. Now researchers say the water on the moon comes in three different flavors.

Until recently the moon was thought to be bone dry. But measurements in the last year from the Mini-SAR and Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3 or “M-cubed”) instruments on India’s Chandrayaan-1 moon probe and from NASA’s recent LCROSS mission have proved that wrong.

Mini-SAR found 40 craters, each containing frozen water at least 6.6 feet (2 meters) deep on the lunar surface – which adds up to 600 million tons of lunar ice stuff altogether. LCROSS slammed into the moon on Oct. 9, 2009 and found evidence of water in another crater.

“So far we’ve found three types of moon water,” said Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. “We have Mini-SAR’s thick lenses of nearly pure crater ice, LCROSS’s fluffy mix of ice crystals and dirt, and M-cube’s thin layer that comes and goes all across the surface of the moon.”

LCROSS struck moon water in a cold, permanently dark crater at the lunar south pole. Since then, the science team has been thoroughly mining the data collected from the intentional moon crash.

“It looks as though at least two different layers of our crater soil contain water, and they represent two different time epochs,” said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS principal investigator. “The first layer, ejected in the first 2 seconds from the crater after impact, contains water and hydroxyl bound up in the minerals, and even tiny pieces of pure ice mixed in. This layer is a thin film and may be relatively ‘fresh,’ perhaps recently replenished.”

This brand of moon water resembles the water M3 discovered last year in scant but widespread amounts, bound to the rocks and dust in the very top millimeters of lunar soil, scientists say. But the second layer is different.

“It contains even more water ice plus a treasure chest of other compounds we weren’t even looking for,” he says. “So far the tally includes sulfur dioxide (SO2), methanol (CH3OH), and the curious organic molecule diacetylene (H2C4). This layer seems to extend below at least 0.5 meters and is probably older than the ice we’re finding on the surface.”

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Augustine Committee

NASA Administrator tells House Appropriators Not to Expect a Budget “Plan B”

March 24th, 2010

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden warned House appropriators on Tuesday not to expect an alternative to President Obama’s proposed 2011 budget for the space agency, a spending plan that calls for the controversial cancellation of the Constellation moon program and threatens thousands of job losses.

Bolden’s remarks came during the first of three congressional hearing this week on the $19 billion NASA budget unveiled by the White House in early February.

Key provisions in the budget would replace Constellation’s goal of reaching the moon with human explorers by 2020 with a five-year, $6 billion initiative to develop multiple commercial launch services that are capable to transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Bi-partisan opposition to the cancellation prompted the White House to call for an April 15 space summit in Florida that some lawmakers believe could become a forum for Obama to reverse course.

However, in a polite, but frank exchanges with the top Democrat and Republican on the Appropriations Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee Bolden said there is no “Plan B” in the works.

“With no destinations and no timetables, is that a problem?” questioned Alan Mollohan, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the panel. “You are not really articulating a vision that inspires. Or are you rolling it out piece meal?”

“Unless something is rolled out, then you will have a fairly significant confrontation,” predicted U. S. Rep. Frank Wolf of West Virginia, the panel’s ranking Republican. Wolf is among 15 House Democrats and Republicans who have called on Bolden to huddle with top agency engineers and scientists to re-think Constellation’s demise before the summit. “Is there an effort to develop a compromise, an effort to look at this thing again and compromise? Or is this just the way it is?”

“There is no alternative plan, no alternative budget,” Bolden responded. “If the question is: Am I developing a Plan B. There is no Plan B.”

U. S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat has been among those most vocal in calling on the White House to set Mars as NASA’s new exploration goal. Nelson has suggested the president might use the summit to call for a near-term initiative to develop a new heavy lift rocket that would enable American explorers to explore the moon, asteroids and eventually Mars as part of a flexible path strategy for deep space exploration.

Bolden assured lawmakers that NASA intends to sponsor a major research and develop effort that will focus on the technologies for a new rocket, advanced life support systems as well as faster in-space propulsion capabilities that could pull all of those destinations within range. However, it is premature to set production dates for an exploration rocket, let alone a timeline for the first Mars landing, he said.

“We are in competition with China and Russia, and this would put us at a disadvantage,” said U. S. Rep C. A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat who voiced a concern shared by several of the appropriators.

However, Bolden defended the president’s spending plan and the decision to cancel Constellation by summarizing the findings and recommendations of the Augustine Committee. The White House chartered study committee concluded last year that the six-year-old moon initiative outlined by President Bush was so under funded it could not achieve a lunar landing until well after 2030.

New investments in technology coupled with a push to turn the transportation of astronauts to Earth orbit over to less costly commercial carriers will save money, while leading to advances that will get Americans back to the moon and other deep space destinations faster than would Constellation, Bolden predicted.

“I’m convinced that with the technologies we can develop, we will get there much sooner,” the 63-year-old administrator testified. “We could not go to Mars probably in my life time, to be quite honest. I am convinced that given the opportunity to expend some funds on research and development we can actually do that.”

At one point, Bolden told the lawmakers they need not be concerned for America’s leadership even if China reached the moon ahead of an U. S. lunar return.

As the managing partner in the 15-nation International Space Station, the United States is the undisputed world leader in human space exploration; even if China were to set down on the lunar surface first, most will know America has already been to the moon and has its sights set on new more challenging destinations, he told the panel.

“Sometimes you lead not by being out front, where you are very visible, but you lead by being very influential and being able to get people to do the things you need to do, ” Bolden said. “We do that every day on the International Space Station.”

Later, Bolden told the panel he’d had a change of heart.

“China, it does make a difference to me who is first,” said the retired Marine Corps general and former NASA astronaut. “It’s important that we be first all the time.”


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