Friday, July 27, 2012

NASA's Space Launch System Passes Major Agency Review, Moves to Preliminary Design

The rocket that will launch humans farther into space than ever before passed a major NASA review Wednesday. The Space Launch System (SLS) Program completed a combined System Requirements Review and System Definition Review, which set requirements of the overall launch vehicle system. SLS now moves ahead to its preliminary design phase.

The SLS will launch NASA's Orion spacecraft and other payloads, and provide an entirely new capability for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

These NASA reviews set technical, performance, cost and schedule requirements to provide on-time development of the heavy-lift rocket. As part of the process, an independent review board comprised of technical experts from across NASA evaluated SLS Program documents describing vehicle specifications, budget and schedule. The board confirmed SLS is ready to move from concept development to preliminary design.

"This new heavy-lift launch vehicle will make it possible for explorers to reach beyond our current limits, to nearby asteroids, Mars and its moons, and to destinations even farther across our solar system," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The in-depth assessment confirmed the basic vehicle concepts of the SLS, allowing the team to move forward and start more detailed engineering design."

The reviews also confirmed the SLS system architecture and integration with the Orion spacecraft, managed by NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Ground Systems Development and Operations Program, which manage the operations and launch facilities at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"This is a pivotal moment for this program and for NASA," said SLS Program Manager Todd May. "This has been a whirlwind experience from a design standpoint. Reaching this key development point in such a short period of time, while following the strict protocol and design standards set by NASA for human spaceflight is a testament to the team's commitment to delivering the nation's next heavy-lift launch vehicle."

SLS reached this major milestone less than 10 months after the program's inception. The combination of the two assessments represents a fundamentally different way of conducting NASA program reviews. The SLS team is streamlining processes to provide the nation with a safe, affordable and sustainable heavy-lift launch vehicle capability. The next major program milestone is preliminary design review, targeted for late next year.

The first test flight of NASA's Space Launch System, which will feature a configuration for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity, is scheduled for 2017. As SLS evolves, a three-stage launch vehicle configuration will provide a lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons) to enable missions beyond low Earth orbit and support deep space exploration.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the SLS program. Across the country NASA and its industry partners continue to make progress on SLS hardware that will be integrated into the final design. The RS-25 core stage and J-2X upper-stage rocket engine in development by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., for the future two-stage SLS, will be tested at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The prime contractor for the five-segment solid rocket boosters, ATK of Brigham City, Utah, has begun processing its first SLS boosters in preparation for an initial qualification test next year, ahead of their use for the first two exploration missions. The Boeing Co. in Huntsville is designing the SLS core stage, to be built at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and tested at Stennis before being shipped to Kennedy. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Nasa hires SpaceX for science satellite launch

Nasa hired Space Exploration Technologies to launch an ocean monitoring satellite Nasa officials say.This is a key win for the start-up rocket company that also wants to break into the US military’s launch business.

The $82 million contract covers launch, payload processing and other services for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ocean-measuring Jason-3 satellite, which is slated to fly in December 2014.Launch would take place from SpaceX’s new complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Nasa, which handles procurements for NOAA, also awarded three launch contracts, worth $412 million for Delta 2 rockets built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.

One of the satellites earmarked for a Delta 2 flight is the replacement for a carbon dioxide tracking satellite lost in February 2009 after a failed launch on an Orbital Sciences Corp Taurus rocket.The launches, slated for July 2014, October 2014 and November 2016, also will take place at Vandenberg.

SpaceX, which is owned and operated by internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, already holds Nasa contracts worth $1,6 billion to fly cargo to the International Space Station, a $100 billion laboratory that orbits about 240 miles (386 kilometres) above Earth.

The company in May successfully flew a demonstration mission to the station, a key milestone in its efforts to win US military launch contracts as well.

ULA currently has a monopoly on US military launch business. But in an attempt to certify more launchers, the Air Force is expected to award a non-ULA launch services contract this year for the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a former Nasa Earth-monitoring satellite being repurposed by NOAA into a solar observatory. A request for bids under the Air Force’s Orbital/Suborbital Program (OSP-3) was released May 11.

The criteria for new launchers was jointly developed by the Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office and Nasa.The new Nasa contract is the first evidence that Falcon 9 meets the new launcher criteria.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

NASA's Mars rover may be in for blind landing

NASA's new Mars rover is heading for a risky do-or-die touchdown next month to assess conditions for life on the planet, but the U.S. space agency may not know for hours whether it arrived safely, managers said on Monday.

That's because the satellite that NASA was counting on for real-time coverage of the Mars Science Laboratory's descent into Gale Crater, located near the planet's equator, was sidelined last month by a maneuvering system glitch.

Managers were able to recover the satellite, but it is now in a different orbit than intended, which may make it unable to view and record the rover's seven-minute descent and landing.

Two other spacecraft orbiting Mars will be monitoring the probe's arrival, but one records data for later playback and the other won't be aligned to see the last minute of flight, NASA's Mars exploration program chief Doug McCuistion told reporters.

"We're assessing what the issues are," McCuistion said. "There's no impact to landing itself. It's simply how that data gets returned to us and how timely that data is."

Mars Science Lab, nicknamed Curiosity, is scheduled to land at 1:31 a.m. EDT (0531 GMT) on August 6 inside an 96-mile (155-km) wide impact basin that may be one of the final resting places for Mars' lost surface water.

The planet, which is about 1.5 times as far away from the sun as Earth, is a cold, dry and acidic desert today. But that was not always the case.

Previous orbiters, landers and rovers have turned up solid evidence of water, including geologic features such as channels, as well as chemical fingerprints of clays and minerals that on Earth form when rock interacts with water.Gale Crater is one of the lowest places on Mars.

"It's like a little bowl, capturing any water that may have been present there," said project scientist John Grotzinger, with the California Institute of Technology. "Water flows downhill, and if you don't know anything else in advance, that's where you want to go to find evidence of water."

Curiosity is after more than water, however. To support Earth-like life, an environment needs water, an energy source, like the sun or chemical energy, and carbon.

The goal of the mission, designed to last two years, is to assess whether Gale Crater had all the ingredients at the right time and in the right places for microbial life to arise and be preserved.

The basin sports a 3-mile (5-km) high mound of what appears to be layers of sediment, which at one time might have completely filled the crater.

"One of the main reasons why we're going to Mars is to figure out whether life ever started there," said NASA's lead Mars scientist Michael Meyer.

"If in the second place in our solar system that we think life has a possibility and actually did start there, my conclusion would be that life is easy, it's a natural process and the universe is just littered with places that have life," Meyer said.

Weighing in at about a ton, Curiosity is too big for the landing bags and thruster rockets that were designed to let previous probes to Mars touch down gently down on its surface.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mars Panorama - Next Best Thing to Being There

PASADENA, Calif. -- From fresh rover tracks to an impact crater blasted billions of years ago, a newly completed view from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows the ruddy terrain around the outcrop where the long-lived explorer spent its most recent Martian winter.

This scene recorded from the mast-mounted color camera includes the rover's own solar arrays and deck in the foreground, providing a sense of sitting on top of the rover and taking in the view. Its release this week coincides with two milestones: Opportunity completing its 3,000th Martian day on July 2, and NASA continuing past 15 years of robotic presence at Mars. Mars Pathfinder landed July 4, 1997. NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter reached the planet while Pathfinder was still active, and Global Surveyor overlapped the active missions of the Mars Odyssey orbiter and Opportunity, both still in service.

The new panorama is online at It is presented in false color to emphasize differences between materials in the scene. It was assembled from 817 component images taken between Dec. 21, 2011, and May 8, 2012, while Opportunity was stationed on an outcrop informally named "Greeley Haven," on a segment of the rim of ancient Endeavour Crater.

"The view provides rich geologic context for the detailed chemical and mineral work that the team did at Greeley Haven over the rover's fifth Martian winter, as well as a spectacularly detailed view of the largest impact crater that we've driven to yet with either rover over the course of the mission," said Jim Bell of Arizona State University, Tempe, Pancam lead scientist.

Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, landed on Mars in January 2004 for missions originally planned to last for three months. NASA's next-generation Mars rover, Curiosity, is on course for landing on Mars next month.

Opportunity's science team chose to call the winter campaign site Greeley Haven in tribute to Ronald Greeley (1939-2011), a team member who taught generations of planetary science students at Arizona State University.

"Ron Greeley was a valued colleague and friend, and this scene, with its beautiful wind-blown drifts and dunes, captures much of what Ron loved about Mars," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for Opportunity and Spirit.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. 

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Sun unleashes huge solar flare at the end of 11-year cycle

Our Sun may add to the fireworks as our American friends celebrate their  Independence Day

On Monday, July 2, a regiona of our Sun known as active region 1515 unleashed a solar flare aimed squarely at the Earth. This group sunspots – from which solar flares originate — has been crackling with radio and X-ray energy for days and Monday’s flare was an M5.6-class flare, just a notch down from the strongest possible.

While this isn’t all that surprising, it will have some very noticeable effects here on Earth. Our sun goes through 11-year cycles and will near the peak of cycle 24 next year. As we get closer to that peak, flares are going to get more intense. This most-recent flare was only the latest in a string, including an X-class flare which dealt our Earth’s magnetic field a glancing blow on March 7.

Our history is riddled with the effects of solar flares. Solar flares carry intense amounts of energy that can actually add electricity to our phone lines, fiber optic cables and satellites that we use for all of our modern activities. The now-famous Bastille Day event on July 14, 2000, and the X45-class Halloween flare of 2003 caused communications disruptions worldwide around the peak of the last solar cycle. Back in 1989, a flare caused 6 million people in Quebec to lose power when it overloaded transformers.

Historically, one of the largest events was the Carrington Super flare of 1859, which caused the Northern Lights to be seen as far south as Puerto Rico and disrupted telegraph lines around the world. In fact, operators on the east coast of the United States found there was enough current on the line to send telegraph messages even with their batteries disconnected.

But with an aging power infrastructure and a growing reliance on communications technology, there is now some concern as to what a powerful flare would do today. In space, solar activity can damage satellites and endanger astronauts. Passengers flying along polar routes may even experience a substantially higher dose of radiation, forcing some flights to re-route.

That’s why a fleet of international spacecraft are now monitoring the Sun as never before in human history. These include the European Space Agency’s Solar Heliospheric Observatory, the Proba-2  microsattelite, Japan’s Hinode, and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

NASA’s Twin STEREO spacecraft also monitor the Sun from different vantage points along Earth’s orbit, giving us a full 360 degree view of the solar surface.

This solar cycle may prove to be lackluster by historic standards. Between 2008 and 2010, scientists recorded the lowest ebb of solar activity in the past century and there is some conjecture that Cycle 25 may be especially weak, following the theories of NASA solar physicist David Hathaway who supposed that the churning behaviour in the Sun’s interior is actually slowing down and the entire solar cycle may be disrupted as soon as 2022.

When this has happened in the past, cosmic ray levels have also gone  up when we’re at a solar minimum. The solar wind ebbs and more particles from beyond our solar system are able to reach the Earth. One famous, and hotly debated, extended solar lull was known as the Maunder Minimum, which stretched from 1645 to 1715. During this period, the Thames River froze, virtually no sunspots were recorded by the observers of the day and crops failed due to short growing seasons.

Unfortunately, a weak solar cycle and cooling via global dimming (albedo or reflectivity due to increased cloud cover) may be masking the effects of global warming, adding fuel to the political debate.

Whatever the case, our sun is worth keeping an eye on. If skies are clear, observers across North America above latitude 40 degree north may be in for a summer showing of the aurora borealis. This is one of nature’s finest spectacles, and requires no equipment—just a set of eyes– to watch.