Friday, April 29, 2011

NASA's Voyager Probes to Leave Solar System

It may be decades before humanity sets foot on Mars, but we're only five years away from sampling the vast stretches of interstellar space beyond our solar system for the first time, researchers say. NASA's twin unmanned Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977, are streaking toward the edge of the solar system at around 37,000 mph (60,000 kph). At that rate, they'll probably pop out of our sun's sphere of influence and into interstellar space by 2016 or so, according to mission scientists.

"They are about to break free of the solar system," Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., said during a media teleconference yesterday (April 28). "We are trying to get outside of our bubble, into interstellar space, to directly measure what is there.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Asteroid or Planet?

Scientists still aren't sure what to make of Vesta, a small body that orbits the sun. Is it an asteroid or a planet? NASA's Dawn spacecraft could settle the matter. Vesta was spotted 200 years ago and is officially a "minor planet" — a body that orbits the sun but is not a proper planet or comet. Yet, many astronomers call Vesta an asteroid because it lies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

But Vesta is not a typical member of that orbiting rubble patch. The vast majority of objects in the main belt are relative lightweights, 62 miles(100 kilometers) wide or smaller, compared with Vesta, which is 329 miles(530 km) wide. If Vesta is an asteroid, it would be the second-largest in the solar system. Some scientists, however, are skeptical about that designation. "I don't think Vesta should be called an asteroid," said Tom McCord, a Dawn team member at the Bear Fight Institute in Winthrop, Wash. "Not only is Vesta so much larger, but it's an evolved object, unlike most things we call asteroids."

The evolution of Vesta

The onion-like structure of Vesta (core, mantle and crust) is the key trait that makes Vesta more like planets such as Earth, Venus and Mars than the other asteroids, McCord said. Like the planets, Vesta had sufficient radioactive material inside when it formed, releasing heat that melted rock and enabled lighter layers to float to the outside. Signatures of a type of volcanic rock called basalt were detected in 1972, which meant that the body had to have melted at one time.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mars' Thick Dry Ice Sheet Points to Planet's Wetter Past

The south pole of Mars has a layer of dry ice that is 30 times thicker than previously thought, a find that suggests the Red Planet may have had more liquid water on its the surface in the distant past, scientists say. While most of the ice at the Martian south pole is frozen water, some of the ice pack is composed of dry ice — frozen carbon dioxide.

A team of scientists used a radar instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to calculate the depth of dry ice deposits. By measuring how long it took for the radar waves to travel through the ice and bounce back to the MRO spacecraft, the researchers determined the dry ice cache was nearly 2,300 feet (700 meters) thick.

"The volume of the deposit is about the volume of Lake Superior," said study leader Roger Phillips of the Southwest Research Institute.

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A Galactic Rose Highlights Hubble's 21st Anniversary

In celebration of the 21st anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope's deployment into space, astronomers pointed Hubble at an especially photogenic group of interacting galaxies called Arp 273.

This image, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows a group of interacting galaxies called Arp 273. The larger of the spiral galaxies, known as UGC 1810, has a disc that is tidally distorted into a rose-like shape by the gravitational pull of the companion galaxy below it, known as UGC 1813. The swathe of blue jewels across the top is the combined light from clusters of intensely bright and hot young blue stars. These massive stars glow fiercely in ultraviolet light.

The smaller, nearly edge-on companion shows distinct signs of intense star formation at its nucleus, perhaps triggered by the encounter with the companion galaxy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pluto's Atmosphere Found Poisonous and Surprisingly High

Poisonous carbon monoxide gas has been discovered in the atmosphere of the dwarf planet Pluto, after a worldwide search that lasted nearly two decades, according to a new study that also detected the planet's atmosphere extending much higher above the surface than previously thought. A British-based team of astronomers, led by Jane Greaves of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, found a strong signal of carbon monoxide gas in Pluto's atmosphere using the 15-meter James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii.

The atmosphere of Pluto was known to extend more than 60 miles (about 100 kilometers) above the surface, the researchers said, but the new findings raise that height to more than 1,860 miles equivalent to a quarter of the distance out to Pluto's largest moon, Charon.

Greaves will present the new discovery on Wednesday (April 20) at the Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting in Wales. Pluto was discovered in 1930 and was considered to be the smallest and most distant planet orbiting around the sun. In 2006, its status was demoted to dwarf planet, making it one of a handful of such bodies that orbit beyond Neptune in the outer reaches of the solar system.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Why Is It So Hard to Travel to Mars?

The Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters were perhaps two of the most prominent reminders of how crucial it is that everything work just right for a spacecraft to travel to space and successfully return back to Earth. Whether it was the failure of the seal used to stop hot gases from seeping through, or a piece of foam insulation that damaged the thermal protection system, scientists and engineers must make thousands of predictions of all the things that could go wrong during flight.

NASA's human Mars mission presents even more challenges of sending humans safely to a farther distance and to a more dangerous environment. Designing an aircraft that can safely enter and exit Mars' unpredictable atmosphere is a big challenge. "Each time we fly to Mars, we learn a little more and get a little smarter," said Walter Engelund of NASA's Langley Research Center. "One thing we have learned is that the Mars atmosphere is certainly a big variable. It is much more dynamic than our own Earth's atmosphere." For missions that require entry and re-entry into an atmosphere, the design of the spacecraft is typically guided by its EDL system.

Engelund, along with several other NASA colleagues, published a review of the EDL systems currently being proposed for a future manned mission to Mars in a recent book titled "The Human Mission to Mars. Colonizing the Red Planet." The book is a compilation of studies written by a team of more than 70 scientists, including four astronauts (two who walked on the moon), offering a detailed guide of how to successfully accomplish a human mission to Mars. Engelund is the lead author of the EDL study.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

April's Full Moon Arrives Sunday With Easter Name

Sunday (April 17) brings us the first full moon of the new spring season in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing a lunar delight named – in part – for Easter. The official moment that the moon will turn full is 10:44 p.m. EDT. Traditional names for the full moons of the year are found in some publications such as The Farmers' Almanac. The origins of these names have been traced back to native America, though they may also have evolved from old England or, as Guy Ottewell, editor of the annual publication, "Astronomical Calendar" suggests, "writer's fancy."

Traditionally, the April full moon is known as the "Pink Moon,"supposedly because the grass pink or wild ground phlox is one of the earliest widespread flowers of the spring. Other monikers were the Full Sprouting Grass Moon, the Egg Moon, and – among coastal tribes – the Full Fish Moon, when the shad come upstream to spawn.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

New U.S. Spy Satellite Launches on Clandestine Mission

A rocket carrying a new U.S. spy satellite lit up the California night sky Thursday on a secret mission for the National Reconnaissance Office. The spy satellite NROL-34 soared into orbit atop an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket after launching from a pad at the Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:24 p.m. PDT (0424 GMT on April 15) to begin the latest classified flight for the NRO. The details of the satellite's purpose and final orbit are classified, but the new spacecraft will definitely serve a role for the U.S. military, officials said.

"This launch supports the military's national defense mission," officials with the United Launch Alliance, which orchestrated the satellite launch for the NRO, said in a mission description. Because of the satellite's secret purpose, a media blackout was put in place about 4 1/2 minutes after the Atlas 5 rocket launched toward orbit. The rocket lifted off with the help of a single solid rocket booster to propel it into space.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why There's No Replacement for the Space Shuttle

After the wheels of the space shuttle roll to a stop for the final time, NASA astronauts will have to rely on Russian spaceships for their rides into space until commercial American vehicles are ready to fly crews to orbit. A capsule-based spacecraft, called Orion, is also in development, but NASA's current plans are to use it primarily as an escape ship for the International Space Station.

Over the course of the shuttle program's 30-year career, NASA and its various partners explored a number of different vehicle options to succeed the space shuttles, but none were brought to fruition, said Roger Launius, space history curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, in Washington.One by one, each program ended after development plans bumped up against funding and politics – an experience familiar throughout NASA's history. "There's a whole series of factors – some of them were political, but a lot of the problems were technical," Launius said. "Could they have been solved if they had more money? Probably. So, was it a technical problem or a political problem? I could argue both sides."

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Is Space Tourism the New Space Race?

Fifty years after the Soviet Union beat the United States to send the first human to space, a new space race is heating up. This time, the players are not nations — rather, they're commercial companies that aim to send the first paying passengers to space on private spaceships. "It's an exciting time for the industry," said George Whitesides, president of suborbital spaceship company Virgin Galactic. "I really believe that we're at the edge of an extraordinary period of innovation which will radically change our world."

If Virgin and other companies succeed, space could soon become one more conquered frontier, with rocket rides to space becoming as accessible as plane rides across the Atlantic. "We're just about to the point where low-Earth orbit really ought to be considered part of our normal regime," said Roger Launius, a space history curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. But while we may be nearing a tipping point where access to space expands widely beyond the select few who've left Earth to date, Launius and others caution that it's not a done deal yet.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

NASA's Space Shuttles at 30

NASA's space shuttle program may be coming to an end later this year, but the agency's fleet of orbiters is preparing to celebrate an important milestone next week – the 30th anniversary of the very first space shuttle flight. On April 12, 1981, the shuttle Columbia blasted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.,on the program's inaugural STS-1 mission. Thirty years later, the workhorse shuttles have played an instrumental role in constructing the International Space Station, launching critical satellites and observatories into orbit including the prolific Hubble Space Telescope and carrying numerous supplies and science experiments into space.

Over the course of his career, Wayne Hale, NASA's former space shuttle program manager, bore witness to many of these crowning achievements. Hale joined NASA in 1978 as a propulsion officer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He then worked as a flight director in Mission Control, presiding over 40 shuttle flights before becoming manager of the program in 2005. Hale played a critical role in the agency's recovery from the catastrophic loss in 2003 of the shuttle Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew. He now serves as Director of Human Spaceflight Programs at Special Aerospace Services, located in Boulder, Colo.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Russian Spaceship 'Gagarin' Arrives at Space Station

A Russian spaceship bearing the name of history's most famous cosmonaut docked at the International Space Station late Wednesday to deliver three new crew members to the orbiting lab. The Soyuz TMA-21 — nicknamed "Gagarin" after Yuri Gagarin, who became the first person in space on April 12, 1961 — successfully docked with the station's Poisk module at 7:09 p.m. EDT (2309 GMT). The spacecraft had launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 4, blasting off from the same pad used for Gagarin's historic flight nearly 50 years ago. "Contact and capture — docking confirmed," a NASA official announced as the "Gagarin" sidled up to the orbiting lab. The "Gagarin" launched into space Monday (April 4 EDT) carrying two cosmonauts and one NASA astronaut to join three other crewmembers already aboard the station, rounding out the orbiting lab's Expedition 27.

The three spaceflyers — NASA's Ron Garan and Russians Alexander Samokutyaev and Andrey Borisenko — will also stay on as part of the next station mission, Expedition 28. "It was a great couple of days and we're ready to get to work," Garan said. Garan and Samokutyaev will be flight engineers on both expeditions. Borisenko will serve as a flight engineer on Expedition 27 and later serve as the commander of Expedition 28. [Vote Now! The Best Spaceships of All Time]. The crew received a flood of congratulatory calls from Russia's Mission Control center near Moscow after docking at the space station. Russian space official and the families of the astronaut and cosmonauts were on hand to wish the crew well. "We love you," Garan's wife Carmel told her husband and his crewmates after their arrival on the station. "We'll keep the fires burning at home, and we'll welcome you home with open arms at the end of your successful mission."

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Company planning biggest rocket since man on moon

A high-tech entrepreneur unveiled plans Tuesday to launch the world's most powerful rocket since man went to the moon. Space Exploration Technology has already sent the first private rocket and capsule into Earth's orbit as a commercial venture. It is now planning a rocket that could lift twice as much cargo into orbit as the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle. The first launch is slotted for 2013 from California with follow-up launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Space X's new rocket called Falcon Heavy is big enough to send cargo or even people out of Earth's orbit to the moon, an asteroid or Mars. Only the long retired Saturn V rocket that sent men to the moon was bigger. "This is a rocket of truly huge scale," said Space X president Elon Musk, who also founded PayPal and manufactures electric sports cars. The Falcon Heavy could put 117,000 pounds into the same orbit as the International Space Station. The space shuttle hauls about 54,000 pounds into orbit. The old Saturn V could carry more than 400,000 pounds of cargo.

Monday, April 04, 2011

NASA Delays Final Launch of Shuttle Endeavour to Avoid Space Traffic Jam

NASA has delayed the last launch of the shuttle Endeavour toward the International Space Station by at least 10 days, to April 29, in order to avoid a space traffic jam with an unmanned Russian cargo ship, also headed for the orbiting laboratory later this month. Endeavour is now targeted to blast off on its STS-134 flight on Friday, April 29 at 3:47 p.m. EDT, NASA officials said. The decision to postpone the launch removes a scheduling conflict with a Russian Progress cargo ship, which is currently scheduled to launch April 27. The robotic Progress vehicle will arrive at the station on April 29.

Discussions between NASA and its international partners have been ongoing for weeks, Beutel said, and the decision to delay Endeavour's flight was made after several other options, including moving the Progress' launch date, were deemed impractical. "Apparently there is a biological experiment onboard the Progress that has a very short shelf life onboard that spacecraft," Beutel said. "We even looked at the possibility of putting that experiment on Endeavour, but logistically that didn't work out as well." Balancing traffic at the space station and on the ground has proved challenging for the various space station partners, but is especially crucial for NASA, in order to capitalize on the unrivaled cargo-carrying capabilities of the space shuttles. The main objective of the remaining shuttle flights is to ferry supplies to the station so that the orbiting laboratory is in a good position for the years ahead, following the retirement of the agency's shuttle fleet later this year.

NASA preparing Mars rover for launch

NASA engineers are putting the finishing touches on a mega-rover to Mars before shipping it off to Florida for launch later this year. A small army of technicians dressed in protective bunny suits has been working around the clock inside a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles assembling the craft, called Curiosity, and testing its science instruments. The $2.5 billion mission was supposed to launch in 2009, but problems during construction forced a two-year delay.

With launch scheduled for late November, engineers have been busy testing the spacecraft's various systems — all the while making sure that contamination from Earth doesn't accidentally hitch a ride to Mars. The nuclear-powered Curiosity — the size of a small SUV — will probe rocks and soil to determine whether the red planet ever had the right environment to support primitive life. It will carry the most high-tech instruments to the Martian surface including a laser that can zap boulders from afar. To the dismay of some space fans, Curiosity won't carry a high-resolution 3-D camera that "Avatar" director James Cameron was helping to build. NASA recently nixed it because there wasn't enough time to fully test the zoom lens before launch.

Scientists expect Curiosity to build on the discoveries of the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which have uncovered geologic evidence of ancient water and the Phoenix lander, which found ice at its Martian north pole landing site. Curiosity's road to the launch pad has been bumpy. Engineers had to redesign the rover's heat shield and fix problems with the parachute. NASA also faced delivery delays from subcontractors that affected the launch timetable and raised the mission price tag.

Friday, April 01, 2011

NASA Test Stand Passes Review for Next-Generation Rocket Engine Testing

Forty-five years after its first Saturn V rocket stage test and 35 years after its first space shuttle main engine test, the A-2 Test Stand at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center achieved a milestone in preparation for its third major rocket engine test project. A facility readiness review in mid-March indicated all major modifications have been completed on the historic A-2 stand to begin testing the next-generation J-2X rocket engine this summer.

The new test project comes as Stennis celebrates its 50th anniversary year. On Oct. 26, 1961, NASA publicly announced plans to build the south Mississippi facility to test the massive Saturn V rocket stages for the Apollo Program. The first test of a Saturn V second stage at Stennis was performed at the A-2 stand on April 23, 1966. Stennis engineers tested 27 first and second Saturn V rocket stages for the Apollo Program, including those used to carry humans to the moon.