Friday, March 30, 2012

NASA sees no problem recovering Apollo engines

Billionaire Jeff Bezos, the founder of, says he has discovered massive Saturn 5 rocket engines on the Atlantic Ocean floor east of Florida, capturing the attention of NASA and space enthusiasts.

Using sonar, a team funded by the business magnate located the F-1 rocket engines from the Apollo 11 moon landing mission lying 14,000 feet under the sea, according to Bezos. He said they plan to raise at least one of the engines from the ocean floor.

"We don't know yet what condition these engines might be in - they hit the ocean at high velocity and have been in salt water for more than 40 years," Bezos wrote in an update on the website of Bezos Expeditions, his investment firm. "On the other hand, they're made of tough stuff, so we'll see."

The Saturn 5 rocket's first stage powered the 363-foot-tall launch vehicle to an altitude of nearly 40 miles and a velocity of about 6,000 mph. The first stage featured a cluster of five F-1 rocket engines built by Rocketdyne, then a unit of North American Aviation.

The F-1 is the most powerful liquid-fueled engine ever built in the United States. It generated 1.5 million pounds of thrust, weighed 10 tons and stood 19 feet tall, according to NASA.

The five F-1 engines on the Saturn 5's first stage collectively produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust and burned for nearly 3 minutes. The first stage was supposed to fall back into the Atlantic Ocean about 400 miles east of Cape Canaveral, Fla.Apollo 11 launched from the Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969. Four days later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the moon.

"Though they've been on the ocean floor for a long time, the engines remain the property of NASA," Bezos wrote. "If we are able to recover one of these F-1 engines that started mankind on its first journey to another heavenly body, I imagine that NASA would decide to make it available to the Smithsonian for all to see."

NASA spokesperson Bob Jacobs said the agency foresees no problems with Bezos's plan. Bezos sent NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden an email detailing his work."The administrator received an email from Mr. Bezos briefly outlining his efforts," Jacobs said. "We are preparing a response and we see no obstacles that would interfere with any recovery attempt."

If his team raises more than one engine, Bezos wrote, he wishes to display one of the engines at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.The F-1 engines remain the property of NASA.

Bezos established a start-up space company in 2000. Named Blue Origin, the Kent, Wash., based firm has won seed money from NASA to develop an orbital crew vehicle, and it has tested reusable suborbital rocket technology at a launch facility in West Texas.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

NASA Flight Tests New ADS-B Device on Ikhana UAS

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center flew its Ikhana MQ-9 unmanned aircraft with an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, device, for the first time on March 15.

It was the first time an unmanned aircraft as large as Ikhana – with a 66-foot wingspan, a takeoff weight of more than 10,000 pounds, and a cruising altitude of 40,000 feet -- has flown while equipped with ADS-B. ADS-B is an aircraft tracking technology that all planes operating in certain U.S. airspace must adopt by January 2020 to comply with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.

It also was the first flight of hardware for the NASA Aeronautics research project known as UAS in the NAS, which is short for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System.The equipment performed well during a flight lasting nearly three hours in restricted air space over Dryden's Western Aeronautical Test Range, which is part of Edwards Air Force Base and the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center.

Being equipped with ADS-B enables NASA's Ikhana to provide much more detailed position, velocity, and altitude information about itself to air traffic controllers, airborne pilots of other ADS-B equipped aircraft flying in its vicinity, and to its pilots on the ground. Currently, only air traffic controllers can see all the aircraft in any given section of the sky.

The ADS-B checkout flight aboard Ikhana kicked off a series in which researchers will collect ADS-B data while performing representative air traffic control-directed maneuvers.

As part of a collaborative effort, FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J., recorded ADS-B data from the flight and will help analyze the performance of the system installed in the aircraft. Researchers also evaluated new ADS-B laptop software for displaying surrounding air traffic information to the UAS pilots on the ground.

"ADS-B is a cornerstone capability required in the NextGen, and understanding its performance and suitability for integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system is critical to the overall goals of the project," said Sam Kim, deputy manager of integrated test and evaluation for NASA's UAS in the NAS Project.

Developing technologies that will enable unmanned aircraft to fly safely among other planes in the nation's skies is the job of Kim's team.

ADS-B is a key component of the largest transformation of air traffic control ever attempted in the United States. Known as the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, it is a multi-billion-dollar technology modernization effort that will make air travel safer, more flexible and more efficient. As the system gets better, its capacity will grow and the demand for different types of air transportation – even unmanned aircraft – will increase.

Current tracking devices aboard aircraft are called transponders, but the ADS-B isn't just a new-fangled transponder. It provides much more detailed and accurate information to air traffic controllers, and will enable navigation by satellite in addition to the current system of ground radars.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Beaming Success for Station Fans

Did you ever use a flashlight to send a Morse code message to your neighbor at night as a kid? People like to say hello using lights and it's no different for space aficionados who want to twinkle a greeting from the Earth to the International Space Station during a sighting as it passes overhead -- except that it is a whole lot more complicated.

Although the space station has been in orbit for more than a decade, the first successful flashing of a beam of light to the laboratory happened only recently. On March 3, 2012, the San Antonio Astronomical Association met to attempt to shine a signal to the station. Aboard the orbiting lab, astronaut Don Pettit was watching and waiting.

"It sounds deceptively easy," said Pettit in a related blog entry. "But like so many other tasks, it becomes much more involved in the execution than in the planning."

The ground group used a one-watt blue laser and a white spotlight to track the station as it flew overhead. Pettit worked via e-mail with the association members to run complicated engineering calculations to ensure they were accurately tracking the station. Considerations included the diameter of the light beam, the intensity of the laser, and the fact that the station is a moving target, as Pettit pointed out in another blog post on the difficulty of Earth photography from space.

"From my orbital perspective, I am sitting still and Earth is moving," said Pettit. "I sit above the grandest of all globes spinning below my feet, and watch the world speed by at an amazing eight kilometers per second [approximately 17,880 miles per hour]."

Pettit had additional complications to address to capture an image of the beam of light from the Texas fans of the space station. Even with a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second, the camera he used on station was not fast enough to photograph the Earth below, which also is moving. To compensate for this, Pettit used precise manual tracking -- a technique of moving the camera along the same path as the object being photographed -- a skill perfected on orbit while working on Crew Earth Observations research.

While photographing the Earth may provide an entertaining pastime for the crew, there also are important research goals and benefits for those of us on the ground. It can take up to a month, according to Pettit, for astronauts to become proficient at taking this kind of planned image. The crew's photographic efforts can provide orbital perspectives of natural disasters and man-made alterations of the planet, which aid in relief and environmental efforts.

Preparing to capture the laser flash provided practice for Pettit in planning and tracking a specific Earth target. With the station circling the Earth every 90 minutes, you might think there is ample opportunity, but the circumstances of the pass had to align. Pettit and the team in San Antonio had to choose their timing carefully, selecting a "dark pass" when the station could see the ground, but those on the ground could not see the station.

"Ironically, when earthlings can see us, we cannot see them," said Pettit. "The glare from the full sun effectively turns our windows into mirrors that return our own ghostly reflection. This often plays out when friends want to flash space station from the ground as it travels overhead."

Monday, March 19, 2012

Search for dangerous asteroids gets NASA funding boost

A NASA-sponsored program that scans the cosmos for potentially dangerous asteroids is being upgraded to improve its ability to hunt for space rocks that might collide with Earth.

NASA is doling out a new $4.1 million grant for the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS), which is based at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The funds will be used to upgrade and operate the program's telescopes through 2015. The project monitors the skies for new comets and asteroids, including potentially dangerous near-Earth objects (NEOs) — hazardous space rocks that threaten to cross the Earth's path someday.

"NASA has recognized that over the last seven years, our program has constantly strived to improve its performance, and has collaborated with others to find new ways to exploit the nearly 1,000 images we take every night with our two telescopes in the mountains north of Tucson," Edward Beshore, principal investigator of the Catalina Sky Survey, said in a statement. "I think NASA recognizes the CSS as a valuable service to, well, humanity."

In 2011, the survey uncovered 586 near-Earth asteroids, which was 65 percent of the total NEO discoveries for the year. The CSS team was also the first to observe an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, which enabled researchers to track the path of the space rock and eventually locate meteorites that reached the ground in Northern Sudan.

The new grant money will be used to expand the power of the project's largest telescope, develop more sensitive software, and conduct searches on more nights every month, CSS officials said in a statement.

The Catalina Sky Survey utilizes two wide-field survey telescopes and a dedicated follow-up telescope located in the Catalina mountains north of Tucson. To detect NEOs, the team uses the two telescopes to take four images of selected portions of the sky roughly 10 minutes apart from one another.

Special software is then used to comb through the data to look for faint objects that appear to be moving across the sky in a straight line. Filters are applied to remove known asteroids and false detections. The results are then presented to an observer for verification. If an asteroid is suspected to qualify as an NEO, it is reported to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. for follow-up studies and analysis.

Part of the new funds from NASA will be used to upgrade the camera on the 1.5-meter telescope on the summit of Mt. Lemmon, enabling the observatory to cover more of the sky.

"When we began observing in 2000, our image sensor was 16 megapixels, which was large by any standard," CSS co-investigator Steve Larson said in a statement. "Today, commonly available consumer digital cameras have surpassed that size, and we were reaching the limit of productivity with our current camera design."

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

NASA Jet Stream Study Will Light up The Night Sky

High in the sky, 60 to 65 miles above Earth's surface, winds rush through a little understood region of Earth's atmosphere at speeds of 200 to 300 miles per hour. Lower than a typical satellite's orbit, higher than where most planes fly, this upper atmosphere jet stream makes a perfect target for a particular kind of scientific experiment: the sounding rocket. Some 35 to 40 feet long, sounding rockets shoot up into the sky for short journeys of eight to ten minutes, allowing scientists to probe difficult-to-reach layers of the atmosphere.

In March, NASA will launch five such rockets in approximately five minutes to study these high-altitude winds and their intimate connection to the complicated electrical current patterns that surround Earth. First noticed in the 1960s, the winds in this jet stream shouldn't be confused with the lower jet stream located around 30,000 feet, through which passenger jets fly and which is reported in weather forecasts. This rocket experiment is designed to gain a better understanding of the high-altitude winds and help scientists better model the electromagnetic regions of space that can damage man-made satellites and disrupt communications systems. The experiment will also help explain how the effects of atmospheric disturbances in one part of the globe can be transported to other parts of the globe in a mere day or two.

"This area shows winds much larger than expected," says Miguel Larsen, a space scientist at Clemson University who is the principal investigator for these five rockets, known as the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (ATREX). "We don't yet know what we're going to see, but there is definitely something unusual going on. ATREX will help us understand the big question about what is driving these fast winds."

Determining what drives these winds requires precise understanding of the way the winds move and what kind of turbulence they show. To get an idea of the task at hand, imagine mapping not just the ups and downs of ocean waves but the attendant surf, undertow, and tides, all from 60 miles away and in only 20 minutes. To accomplish this, the five sounding rockets will launch from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia releasing a chemical tracer into the air. The chemical – a substance called trimethyl aluminum (TMA) -- forms milky, white clouds that allow those on the ground to "see" the winds in space and track them with cameras. In addition, two of the rockets will have instrumented payloads to measure pressure and temperature in the atmosphere.

The rockets will be launched on a clear night within a period of minutes, so the trails can all be seen at the same time. The trimethyl aluminum will then be released in space out over the Atlantic Ocean at altitudes from 50 to 90 miles. The cloud tracers will last for up to 20 minutes and will be visible in the mid-Atlantic region, and along the east coast of the United States from parts of South Carolina to New Jersey.

"People have launched single rockets before," says Larsen. "But the key here is that we're extending the range of measurements to many hundreds of miles. The furthest rocket will make it half way to Bermuda."

Sounding rockets are usually launched one or two at a time, so launching five at once will call for specific timing and direction to gather the required data. The rockets must be launched on a clear night between March 14 and April 3. Scientists will then use special camera equipment to track the five clouds and measure how quickly they move away from each other. They can then plug this information into equations that will describe what kind of turbulence exists in the winds.

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Monday, March 12, 2012

NASA exploring ways to clean up space debris

Tampa: Faced with increasing threats of space debris, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is actively exploring ways to clean up the outer space.

Donald Kessler, an astrophysicist at NASA's Environmental Effects Office, said the space industry has been slowly developing ideas for over 30 years on how to proceed to clean up space junk, but none has ever been fully tested.

Space debris comes from asteroids, comets, meteorites and also defunct man-made space devices or their parts.

"Dead" satellites are an example of space debris, which poses increasing risks to functional satellites and the International Space Station.

Kessler, the first chief of NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office, said there are three fundamental issues to be resolved in relation to the cleaning up of space junk.

"One, how do we get to the objects inexpensively? Two, how do we grab an object that is likely spinning and not designed to be grabbed? Three, what do we do with the object after grabbing it," Kessler told Xinhua.

Another factor to consider is that astrophysicists and scientists have been slow to address the topic.

To cite a case, NASA does not annually spend any government funds with regard to the research and the cleaning up of space junk.

Size of space debris can be as small as one centimetre. Astrophysicists and scientists have difficulty putting precise definitions to "large" space debris. However, usually an object of 10 centimetres or greater is considered "large".

International interest in cleaning up space debris has increased in recent years, especially since February 2009, when two artificial satellites collided at almost about 790 km over Siberia, creating over 1,000 pieces of space debris.

Kessler believes that an increasing frequency of collision of space junk will create "a permanent belt of space debris" that would be so thick that it would be a hazard to any attempted launched rocket or satellite.

Two current possible ideas for cleaning up space debris are the use of powerful lasers, whose projected laser beams would push the space junk into lower orbits to be burnt up, and the creation of a matrix of nets to catch some of the space junk.

Kessler, however, thinks that neither concept would be a total solution, even if they worked as planned.

Numerous companies in North America are working on various space junk clean-up projects.

One such company is the Star Technology and Research (STAR) in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

STAR is the recent recipient of nearly $2 million from NASA to create a spacecraft called ElctroDynamic Debris Eliminator (EDDE).

If successfully made and operated, EDDE would target non-functioning orbiting satellites that weigh one tonne apiece. "EDDE will 'sail' on the Earth's magnetic field like a sailing ship in the wind, giving it unlimited range, using solar power. This is the breakthrough technology that makes possible the removal of all large, dangerous debris objects in low Earth orbit. We are working to develop the components that make EDDE possible," STAR spokesperson Jerome Pearson said.

According to the design, EDDE would "sail" to an extinct satellite, using a solar-powered six-mile long space tether line. It will then eject a large net to catch the targeted satellite, and lower itself into a lower orbit. It will fire out the caught satellite into the Earth's atmosphere, where it would then burn up. Once EDDE ejects the satellite, it will "sail" back up into higher orbit and proceed to catch another non-operating satellite, Pearson explained.

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Friday, March 09, 2012

Storms From the Sun

Geomagnetic Storms
One of the most common forms of space weather, a geomagnetic storm refers to any time Earth's magnetic environment, the magnetosphere, undergoes sudden and repeated change. This is a time when magnetic fields continually re-align and energy dances quickly from one area to another.

Geomagnetic storms occur when certain types of CMEs connect up with the outside of the magnetosphere for an extended period of time. The solar material in a CME travels with its own set of magnetic fields. If the fields point northward, they align with the magnetosphere's own fields and the energy and particles simply slide around Earth, causing little change. But if the magnetic fields point southward, in the opposite direction of Earth's fields, the effects can be dramatic. The sun's magnetic fields peel back the outermost layers of Earth's fields changing the whole shape of the magnetosphere. This is the initial phase of a geomagnetic storm.

The next phase, the main phase, can last hours to days, as charged particles sweeping into the magnetosphere accumulate more energy and more speed. These particles penetrate closer and closer to the planet. During this phase viewers on Earth may see bright aurora at lower latitudes than usual. The increase – and lower altitude – of radiation can also damage satellites traveling around Earth.

The final stage of a geomagnetic storm lasts a few days as the magnetosphere returns to its original state.

Geomagnetic storms do not always require a CME. Mild storms can also be caused by something called a corotating interaction region (CIR). These intense magnetic regions form when high-speed solar winds overtake slower ones, thus creating complicated patterns of fluctuating magnetic fields. These, too, can interact with the edges of Earth's magnetosphere and create weak to moderate geomagnetic storms.

Geomagnetic storms are measured by ground-based instruments that observe how much the horizontal component of Earth's magnetic field varies. Based on this measurement, the storms are categorized from G1 (minor) to G5 (extreme). In the most extreme cases transformers in power grids may be damaged, spacecraft operation and satellite tracking can be hindered, high frequency radio propagation and satellite navigation systems can be blocked, and auroras may appear much further south than normal.

Solar Radiation Storms
A solar radiation storm, which is also sometimes called a solar energetic particle (SEP) event, is much what it sounds like: an intense inflow of radiation from the sun. Both CME's and solar flares can carry such radiation, made up of protons and other charged particles. The radiation is blocked by the magnetosphere and atmosphere, so cannot reach humans on Earth. Such a storm could, however, harm humans traveling from Earth to the moon or Mars, though it has little to no effect on airplane passengers or astronauts within Earth's magnetosphere. Solar radiation storms can also disturb the regions through which high frequency radio communications travel. Therefore, during a solar radiation storm, airplanes traveling routes near the poles – which cannot use GPS, but rely exclusively on radio communications – may be re-routed.

Solar radiation storms are rated on a scale from S1 (minor) to S5 (extreme), determined by how many very energetic, fast solar particles move through a given space in the atmosphere. At their most extreme, solar radiation storms can cause complete high frequency radio blackouts, damage to electronics, memory and imaging systems on satellites, and radiation poisoning to astronauts outside of Earth's magnetosphere.

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Monday, March 05, 2012

NASA downplays risk of asteroid strike in 2040

An asteroid discovered last year has been gaining notoriety because of a chance that it could hit Earth in 28 years, but NASA scientists say the odds are extremely remote that it will pose any danger to us.

The huge space rock, called asteroid 2011 AG5, is about 460 feet (140 meters) wide and circles the sun on a path between the orbits of Mars and Venus. Astronomers spotted it on Jan. 8, 2011, using the 60-inch Cassegrain reflector telescope on Mount Lemmon north of Tucson, Ariz.

Some projections suggest the odds of an Earth impact are 1 in 625. But the asteroid is rated a 1 on the 1-to-10 Torino Impact Hazard Scale that denotes potentially dangerous asteroids (1 is the least hazardous rating), NASA scientists say. So while there is a slight chance that asteroid 2011 AG5 could impact our planet in 2040, astronomers still need much better observations to define its orbit.

"Because of the extreme rarity of an impact by a near-Earth asteroid of this size, I fully expect we will be able to significantly reduce or rule out entirely any impact probability for the foreseeable future," Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement.

The asteroid is expected to come near Earth in February 2023, but it will pass no closer than about 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) at that time. It will be in the area again in 2028, but it won't come closer than about 10.4 million miles (16.7 million kilometers) from our planet.

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