Monday, May 31, 2010

Boeing Uncertain About Orion

Back when NASA's new Orion capsule was going to return astronauts to the Moon, Boeing won the contract to build Orion and was pleased to have it. Now, however, a stripped down Orion is to serve as a lifeboat attached to ISS, and only later-- possibly-- will it be upgraded to make it capable of flying deep space missions. Boeing says that changes in a negative way the business case for building the capsule.

Boeing is concerned about President Obama's new emphasis on bringing private enterprise into the manned spaceflight program. The company is currently developing Orion under a contract with NASA that gives NASA strong oversight and limits Boeing's profits, according to Boeing. If now the rules are changing to allow private companies to develop manned spacecraft that could compete with Orion in its reduced role more on their own terms, Boeing is questioning whether it can fairly compete given the restrictions of its current contract.

It's an interesting position. Changing the way NASA approaches manned space exploration obviously involves more than the big decisions. Smaller decisions could also help determine how the new approach plays out.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Voyager 2 Back To Science

Voyager 2, launched in 1977 to fly by Jupiter and Saturn, is still working, now at the edge of interstellar space. Three weeks ago, however, it stopped sending back sensible scientific data, as reported in this blog, and controllers ordered it to transmit only engineering data until they could work out what had gone wrong.

Well, they worked it out. One bit in the craft's computer memory was on 0 when it should have been on 1. Such a simple thing. Once fixed, Voyager 2 was back to sending solid data back to the pale blue dot it left so long ago.

The previous two centuries have produced an extraordinary array of technological and scientific achievements by humans. Listing the greatest of them is both difficult and unnecessary. Somewhere in the mix, however, the greatest achievements of NASA have to be considered, and among those have to be the flights of the Voyagers.

Friday, May 28, 2010

XCOR, Masten Team Up

XCOR Aerospace, which builds liquid oxygen/methane rocket engines, and Masten Space Systems, which is developing the expertise to allow it to soft-land probes, are teaming up to offer themselves as prime contractors to NASA for future missions to land robotic craft on the Moon, Mars, or asteroids. The two companies, both based in Mojave, California, think that President Obama's new plan for NASA, which stresses commercializing manned spaceflight to low Earth orbit, could favor them if the same principle is extended to unmanned programs. Indeed, if one goal of the new approach is to build a robust space industry, NASA should reach beyond the aerospace giants and support the growth of smaller, capable companies.

XCOR and Masten are not depending solely on contracts from NASA for the success of their joint venture, however. They note several nations have expressed interest in lunar exploration specifically and space exploration generally. They also believe a private market for their services and expertise will soon begin to develop.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Life Inside Europa?

A new study suggests the huge ocean that likely exists inside the thin ice shell that covers Jupiter's moon Europa-- an ocean that could contain much more water than exists on Earth-- might also be rich in oxygen.

On the one hand, that's good news for those searching for extraterrestrial life. Oxygen could power life. On the other hand, however, oxygen is extremely reactive with other elements, which could potentially slow or derail the development of life.

If the existence of abundant oxygen is confirmed, Europa becomes even more attractive as a target for a future mission.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Atlantis Home

Space shuttle Atlantis landed safely at Cape Kennedy this morning, ending what will likely be its last spaceflight.

Atlantis flew 32 missions, among them trips to the old Soviet/Russian Mir space station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and several to ISS.

Atlantis may yet fly once more next year, but Congress would have to act to make that happen.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Phoenix Is Finished

As reported earlier in this blog. NASA recently made one final attempt to reestablish contact with its Phoenix Mars Lander. After a week of trying, nothing was heard from Lander, and NASA has officially declared the Phoenix mission to be over.

Added support for that decision came from an image taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Analysis of the long shadow cast by Lander suggests the craft has been damaged during the harsh Martian winter. The agency theorizes that hundreds of pounds of ice could have accumulated on the craft during the winter, and the weight of that ice seems to have broken off one of the solar panels which powered the Lander, thus robbing it of the power it needed to function.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Heading For Home

Space shuttle Atlantis has left ISS, and the crew is preparing to return home. Today, they will conduct one last inspection of the orbiter's tiles, looking for possible damage done by micrometeoroids during the mission.

Already, NASA analysts have pored over video of the launch and other data and determined that the orbiter was not hit during launch.

NASA fully expects Atlantis to get a clean bill of health.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Jupiter's New Look

Jupiter's colorful, active, structured atmosphere has made it a favorite observing target for centuries. The basic organization of the atmosphere has remained constant all those years, but every once in a while there's a twist. Now is one of those times.

The South Equatorial Belt is usually a reddish brown region that circles the planet and is home to the famed Great Red Spot. Currently, the SEB is gone, or at least invisible from Earth. It has pulled a similar disappearing act a few times, and it has always come back with a vengeance. The return is generally heralded by a huge outbreak of storms in that area.

Some astronomers suspect the SEB is not actually gone, but simply obscured by higher clouds. The fact that it always re-emerges may support that interpretation. Another probe to Jupiter may be necessary to finally solve the mystery.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Close For Falcon 9

The first launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket could still happen yet this month. The company is looking at May 28 or 29 as possible launch dates. Preparations for the launch have gone smoothly, but the first launch of any new rocket is always a chancey affair.

This Falcon 9 will carry a dummy Dragon capsule. Dragon will be used to deliver cargo to ISS after the shuttles are retired, and the company also foresees Dragon capsules ferrying humans to and from low Earth orbit.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Two Moons Quickly

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has just completed a double encounter at Saturn-- flybys of the moons Enceladus and Titan within 48 hours.

Both moons are seen as possible homes of life, even though they are extremely different worlds. Enceladus is small-- about 300 miles across-- and sheathed in ice. The most spectacular aspect of the moon is the group of geysers that erupt from its southern polar region. Scientists think there's a huge ocean of water under the ice shell, heated by internal processes and interaction with Saturn's powerful gravity. Organic compounds have been detected in the geysers' spray. Combined, those factors suggest the possibility of life in the possible ocean.

Titan, on the other hand, is huge-- bigger than Mercury, with an atmosphere denser than Earth's. It is chock full of organics, and has an active surface environment complete with weather. Many scientists see Titan as a strong possibility to harbor life.

Cassini's flybys will add more data to our understanding of those two fascinating worlds.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

One of the main limiting factors in long-duration spaceflight is the weakening of bones in prolonged weightlessness. One way to counter that is to pursue a rigorous exercise regimen during flight. Another way may be to create artificial onboard deep space ships. A new study by NASA suggests eating omega-3 fatty acids might also help.

The study suggests those acids, found in fish oil, counter the loss of calcium in bones. As added, anecdotal evidence, it seems to be the case that astronauts who have eaten more fish than red meat during missions have experienced less bone loss than astronauts who ate more meat. If this finding is confirmed, there seems to be a multi-faceted strategy that could protect the bone health of astronauts during extended spaceflight.

NASA also points out that the results of this study could aid the treatment of osteoporosis on Earth.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

STS-132 Update

Space shuttle mission STS-132 has accomplished its main objective, delivering a new Russian module to ISS and installing it. The module is currently loaded with supplies to carry ISS into the post-shuttle era. Astronauts will unpack the supplies, and the module will then be used as another research lab.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Phoenix Week

No, not the Arizona city or the mythical bird. NASA is devoting this week, and the services of the Odyssey probe orbiting Mars, to listening one last time for transmissins from the Phoenix Mars Lander.

Odds are the extreme cold of the Martian polar winter has destroyed Lander's systems-- NASA has listened twice before and heard nothing-- but this week is high summer in the Martian arctic. NASA figures if Lander is ever going to have sufficient solar energy to transmit again, it would be now.

If nothing is heard from Lander this week, NASA will consider the spacecraft dead.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Japanese Solar Sail

Japan is about to launch a deep space mission that will use a solar sail to propel the craft. Solar sails operate simply. A sheet of extremely light, thin material is deployed. Solar winds streaming out from the Sun catches that material and pushes the spacecraft. That push is slight but constant, and over time could develop real speed. This mission will be the first to use a solar sail on an interplanetary probe.

The Japanese sail will also be a two-for-one. The sail will provide propulsion, but it will also be covered by solar cells, which will provide energy for the spacecraft. The first target of the mission will be Venus, but the probe is also to continue to the far side of the Sun.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Atlantis On Its Way

The STS-132 mission just got off to a good start with what seemed to be a picture-perfect launch into a bright blue Florida sky.

This is the final scheduled flight of space shuttle Atlantis, and thirty-second overall. Approaching the end of the shuttle program, and being there to watch Atlantis' last liftoff, seemed to have brought out a bigger than normal crowd of spectators. They got to see a classic shuttle launch.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Neil Armstrong Speaks

Neil Armstrong has largely stayed out of the public spotlight since Apollo 11, but he has entered the debate about the future of NASA's manned spaceflight program this year, first by joining James Lovell and Eugene Cernan to write "The Commanders' Letter," and now by testifying before a Senate committee.

Armstrong, 79, opposes President Obama's proposed plan for NASA, arguing it will cede leadership in space exploration to other nations. Armstrong suggested the President was "poorly advised" and that the decision to go with the new approach was taken by a small group around the President acting in secret. The White House countered by saying Mr. Obama heard from a wide range of people before making the decision. However true that may be-- and it's possible the President heard from many people while only a few people were involved in the final decision-making-- it's probably fair to say many interested people were surprised when the new plan was announced last winter. If that is fair, it would seem to cut against The White House counter.

Armstrong said he supported getting the commercial sector more involved, but he wasn't sure it was ready to take over manned spaceflight. That is clearly the point upon which the Obama Plan would succeed or fail, assuming Congress doesn't add ideas of its own before manned spaceflight policy is finally set.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Artificial Gravity Studies

President Obama's new emphasis on eventual deep space missions, such as sending astronauts to an asteriod by 2025, may rejuvenate NASA's artificial gravity program. Living in weightlessness for extended periods has negative effects on the human body, but NASA cut its artificial gravity studies for budgetary reasons when the goal was returning to the Moon. That's a short trip between two gravity wells. Deep space missions will require weeks or months to complete, so having a centrifuge aboard that can simulate Earth gravity, for example, may be useful in keeping a crew in shape.

Getting to Mars, for example, will likely take months, at least in first generation Mars ships, and combating the overall weakening of the body will be critical. There would be no point in sending humans to Mars unless they were physically able to explore the surface upon arrival.

The possibility of having a centrifuge onboard a Mars ship also suggests the size of that ship. We should not imagine going to Mars in a capsule. That flight to an asteroid in 2025 in an Orion capsule is probably pushing the limits. Deep space ships, to be practical, will be assembled in space and have more in common with ISS than with Apollo command modules. NASA tends not to make that point, but it's nonetheless the truth.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Hole In Space

Europe's Herschel infrared space observatory has found a black knot in space in fact contains nothing at all. Through the twentieth century, astronomers took the area to be an extremely dense cloud of gas and dust that completely blocked light from stars behind it. Gas and dust would show up in the infrared, however-- and weren't there.

The hole is in a star-forming area, and astronomers, though surprised by the discovery, theorize that the radiation pressure from new stars bursting onto the scene may sweep everything away from that area, leaving the hole. As theories go, it's a start.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Microbes On Mars

A new study suggests that Earthly microorganisms that manage to get tucked away on Mars-bound spacecraft probably wouldn't contaminate the Red Planet.

The study exposed microbes known to be able to survive the space environment for an extended period to a simulated Mars environment for seven days. While the microbes weren't destroyed, neither did they replicate, and if they can't replicate in that environment, they can't contaminate it.

Longer studies need to be done, but this one suggests the notion that Earthly life set free on Mars might run amok and destroy the Martian life we're trying to find might not be realistic. Still, NASA is working to raise the standards of sterility for future spacecraft destined to explore areas where alien life might be a possibility.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

SpaceX Still Working

SpaceX is still working on ironing out the remaining issues before the first launch attempt of its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Kennedy. The company awaits certification by regulators of its termination procedure, which would be used to destroy the rocket in the event it went dangerously off course.

SpaceX is still looking for a May launch, but to do that the launch would have to be fit into the period between the next shuttle launch, set for May 14, and a late May Delta 4 launch.

The Falcon 9 is to be the backbone of SpaceX's space business, delivering cargo, and perhaps eventually humans, to ISS.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Voyager 2

NASA has reported a communication problem with the Voyager 2 spacecraft. Starting in April, the science reports from the probe have become unreadable. NASA has thus commanded the craft to send reports on its health and status only for the time being.

Voyager 2 was designed and built for a four-year mission to Jupiter and Saturn, but ended up visiting Uranus and Neptune as well. It has performed extraordinarily well for 33 years in deep space. Voyager 2 and its sister probe, Voyager 1, are now flying through the heliosphere, which marks the edge of the Sun's dominant influence. After passing through that, both probes will be in true interstellar space.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Atlantis Ready To Fly

NASA has set the time for launch of STS-132. It's planned for the afternoon of May 14. The mission will be the last scheduled flight of space shuttle Atlantis, which has been in service since 1985. After the mission, Atlantis will not be mothballed, however. It will be maintained in case a rescue of the final scheduled shuttle mission is necessary. There is also the possibility Congress might authorize one additional shuttle flight, but NASA says that would have to be done by June. If it is, Atlantis seems to be the choice to fly that extra mission.

The main task of STS-132 will be to deliver to ISS and install a Russian science module that will also serve as a docking module.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Galaxy 15

Intelsat's Galaxy 15 satellite stopped communicating with the ground April 5. Since then it has drifted out of its assigned slot in geostationary orbit, making it a risk to other satellites occupying other slots in that orbit. Attempts to regain control of the satellite, or simply to shut it down, have so far failed.

Collision with another satellite doesn't seem to be a concern, but Galaxy 15 is still fully operational and broadcasting, which means if it comes too close to another satellite signals from Galaxy 15 could interfere with the work of that satellite. Intelsat is currently working with other satellite companies and builders of satellites, including Orbital Sciences, builder of Galaxy 15, to try to resolve the situation.

If nothing else works, Intelsat says Galaxy 15 will lose its orientation in space in July or August. At that point, its solar cells will no longer be positioned to harvest energy from the Sun, and the wandering satellite will run out of power and shut down.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Opportunity Still Prowling

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity recently imaged the rim of Endeavour crater. Endeavour is the rover's next major exploration target. It would also be the the largest crater explored by Opportunity.

The problem is that rim is eight miles away, and, further, Opportunity won't take a direct route. To avoid a large area of sand dunes, the rover will take a route that will have it traveling twelve miles to cover the eight. Twelve miles is roughly the distance Opportunity has traveled on Mars to date, so actually reaching Endeavour may or may not be in the cards. Still, the fact that Opportunity has sighted the rim and continues to roll into its seventh year is a remarkable achievement.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Progress Malfunction

Progress 37, the latest automated Russian cargo ship, was on final approach to ISS when a malfunction caused it to lose orientation to the station. The 24-foot-long module was filled with new supplies, including propellant, for ISS.

A Russian cosmonaut aboard ISS quickly took remote control of the Progress and performed a perfect docking procedure. It's another reminder that although robots and artificial intelligence can accomplish extraordinary things in space, having humans directly in the loop still prevents disasters and increases productivity. That will be the case for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Another Space Tourism Entry

Space Adventures is teaming with Armadillo Aerospace to offer suborbital flights to the edge of space at some point in the near future. The flights would be vertically-launched by a rocket Armadillo is developing and would reach an altitude of at least 62 miles. The launch experience, therefore, would give tourists something of the feel of the earliest flights by Mercury astronauts, for example.

That feel would be in contrast to what the assumed leader in suborbital tourism, Virgin Galactic, offers. Instead of the classic rocket launch, VG's suborbital spaceship would be carried aloft by plane and upon reaching the necessary altitude the spaceship would separate from the plane and ignite its own rocket to push higher. Another contrast is the ticket price. SA intends to offer its flights at about half the price quoted by VG.

Eric Anderson, president of SA and no relation to this writer, plans to reveal more details about the agreement at the International Space Development Conference in Chicago later this month. Getting into suborbital, though, fills out SA's offerings. It already offers orbital flights aboard Soyuz capsules to the ISS. for several million dollars, and it is offering a circumnavigation of the Moon in a Soyuz. So far, there have been no takers on the lunar voyage.