Archive for the ‘Space Exploration’ Category

The Planck spacecraft has delivered quite a payload of preliminary data on the origins of our Universe, and now the European Space Agency (ESA) is letting us catch a glimpse of Planck’s bounty. Named for German physicist and Nobel laureate Max Planck, the ESA launched Planck in May 2009 from the Guiana Space Centre. The spacecraft settled into a stable orbit along Earth’s nightside in a few months later. Earth’s nightside is an ideal spot for space-bound observatories: permanently shielded from the sun, spacecraft have an unobstructed view of the visible cosmos.

At the end of last summer, Planck began its ambitious mission: a survey of the entire sky. But Planck’s mission isn’t a simple pictorial survey (we’ve done that before). Planck was launched to survey the sky for wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can’t see. Microwaves and very far infrared have longer wavelengths than visible light (see figure below), and Planck is capturing those wavelengths in its survey of the visible Universe.

It took the Planck spacecraft a little over six months to complete its first microwave and very far infrared survey of the sky, and made use of instruments designed and built by both the ESA and NASA. The embedded videos below illustrated how Planck completed this survey.

The fruits of Planck’s labor are shown below, in the spacecraft’s first microwave and very far infrared image of the sky:


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A space capsule has landed in rural Australia, and its contents will help answer a lot of questions about asteroids and the formation of the solar system… Maybe.

The capsule in question hails from the Hayabusa spacecraft. Designed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Hayabusa wasn’t just built for exploratory purposes. JAXA wanted to use Hayabusa to test new technologies for sending unmanned spacecraft to planetary bodies, explore them from orbit, land on them, collect samples, and return those samples to Earth. The spacecraft’s target was 25143 Itokawa, an asteroid (hereafter referred to as ‘Itokawa’). Discovered in only 1998, Itokawa orbits the sun in a meandering path that crosses Mars’ orbit. In case you were wondering, the asteroid was named for Japanese rocket scientist Hideo Itokawa (1912-1999), the father of the Japanese space program. For such an honor, some critics are regretting that the asteroid named for Dr. Itokawa was Hayabusa’s target, considering the number of technical glitches and failures that plagued the spacecraft’s mission

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Here’s something you’ll probably never see again: the space shuttle Atlantis landing at the Kennedy Space Center at the completion of mission STS-132. Atlantis had spent nearly two weeks in space, delivering supplies and a new research module to the International Space Station and conducting a few scientific experiments.

NASA’s wildly successful space shuttle program has only two more missions left before the fleet is retired. Mission STS-132 was Atlantis‘ final scheduled mission, and orbiters Endeavour and Discovery will each make their own trips to the International Space Station before the end of the year.

Thus, for only two more times will we see space shuttles launch from Cape Canaveral, and return home. And for only two more times will we be able to browse NASA’s audio files of the infamous “wake-up calls” used to rouse astronauts at the beginning of each day in outer space. Astronaut families choose one or two special songs to use to wake up the astronauts each morning. For Atlantis‘ final mission, “wake-up call” songs included “Sweet Home Alabama” (my favorite on the list) and the theme from Wallace and Gromit. You can find a full list of wake-up call songs from STS-132 here, and an index to all space shuttle mission wake-up calls (as well as mission images and videos) here.

Finally, watch Atlantis return home for the last time. I’m only sorry I missed seeing it live.

Image provided courtesy of NASA and Ben Cooper. Video provided courtesy of NASA.

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Tomorrow, one of NASA’s Martian rovers should set a record: the rover Opportunity will become the longest-operating craft on Mars. The previous holder, the Viking 1 Lander, operated on the Martian surface for six years and 116 days, from 20 July 1976 to 13 November 1982. Unless some horrific accident in the next few hours permanently disables Opportunity, this little engine that could will reach six years and 117 days tomorrow, with hopefully many more to come.

Opportunity looks back at where it has been.

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NASA has scheduled only three more space shuttle missions before the fleet is retired later this year. One mission each for the three remaining orbiters: Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour. Tomorrow, Atlantis will launch from Kennedy Space Center on its last mission: STS-132.

The six astronauts on board Atlantis are delivering supplies and parts to the International Space Station (ISS). In addition, the ISS is getting a new Russian-built laboratory module, christened Rassvet (“dawn”). Astronauts will also be delivering components for new experiments on the ISS, and conducting a few of their own on the shuttle.

One particular experiment, in partnership with scientists at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, will study the growth of microbes in different microgravity habitats. Microscopic bacteria are all around us, and have been the most prevalent form of life on Earth for billions of years. In certain growth conditions, bacteria can form large, complex, three-dimensional communities called biofilms. Scientists are concerned that bacteria in microgravity environments could also form biofilms, and may impact the health of astronauts on long-term missions. Thus, biologists from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are sending up sealed vials of bacteria. During Atlantis‘ mission, astronauts will manipulate the growth conditions of some vials. Following the shuttle’s return to Earth, scientists will retrieve the vials and see how those different growth conditions affected the formation of biofilms in low gravity. Hopefully, the results of these experiments will help biologists minimize the potential threat of biofilms to astronaut health during longer missions in outer space.

These modest experiments are just at taste of what 30 years of space shuttle missions have delivered: countless scientific endeavors to help us venture further and further into outer space. As the space shuttle missions come to an end, we can only hope that the federal government will fund a future for manned space flight that makes the most of what we’ve learned so far, and will fuel progress for decades to come.

Atlantis launches tomorrow at 2:20PM EDT from Cape Canaveral. Watch it live! You’ll only have two more chances after tomorrow.

STS-132 mission patch provided courtesy of NASA.

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NASA has some new breathtaking images available from the Hubble Space Telescope’s 20 year legacy of exploration. Since a picture speaks a thousand words, I’ll say no more. Go look at the images for yourself!

Image of the Carina Nebula courtesy of NASA, the European Space Agency, M. Livio, and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team.

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The space shuttle program ends this year.  Shuttles have been flying for over 30 years, but the whole program’s history — from hints and whispers to design and construction — really stretches back over half a century.

Before there was NASA, there was NACA. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was formed in 1915 to organize, promote, and conduct aeronautical research. NACA (say the individual letters, not “naca” like we say “nasa”) conducted research in a variety of fields, including experiments to improve the efficiency of jet engines and break the sound barrier. By the mid-1950s, NACA scientists were designing the X-15, a reusable rocket-powered aircraft designed to reach the extreme upper regions of Earth’s atmosphere. Project members were hopeful that the X-15 designs could serve as the basis for a reusable spacecraft. A X-15-inspired spacecraft could be put into orbit using disposable rockets and then land like a conventional aircraft. A “spaceplane,” to use the tired term. In 1958, Congress folded NACA into its new space agency, NASA. The Mercury Project began, and any dreams of a reusable spaceplane were put on hold.

In the late 1960s, with the Apollo Program well underway (and about to put a man on the Moon), NASA began to look to the future. After humankind lands on the Moon, where should an agency with limited recourses go next? Some ideas included additional Moon missions, manned missions to Mars, and manned missions to low Earth orbit to research and develop technology and infrastructure (satellites, space stations, spacecraft). For that final point, a series of tests by the U.S. military had given the reusable spaceplane idea new life: some sort of reusable spaceplane orbiter (or shuttle), combined with some reusable and disposable external components to get the shuttle into orbit, could indeed be economically and technologically feasible. The design process for a shuttle orbiter began in earnest in 1969. In 1972, the Nixon administration made it official: NASA would develop a new “Space Transportation System” (STS) to put humankind into low Earth orbit.

In the final designs for the STS Program (as the space shuttle program was formally christened), NASA contracted private firms to build a small fleet of reusable orbiters (I’ll call them “shuttles” from here on) and a combination of reusable and disposable components to send those shuttles into low Earth orbit. The reusable components include two “space shuttle solid rocket boosters,” powerful rockets that provide the vast majority of the lift and thrust needed to get the shuttle off the launching pad. They propel the shuttle for about the first two minutes of flight, then detach and land in the ocean (they have parachutes), to be recovered later for future missions. The (usually orange) external fuel tank provides the shuttle’s three engines with liquid hydrogen fuel during launch. It detaches from the orbiter after the shuttle’s engines are shut off, and the external tank falls back to Earth, breaking up in the atmosphere. The shuttle itself carries the crew, their quarters, research labs, and cargo (known as the “payload”). The payload can be anything from a satellite (like the Hubble Space Telescope), cargo, or a heavy component like a module of the International Space Station. When it’s mission is complete, the shuttle re-enters the atmosphere, protected from intense heat and pressure by the tile-based heat shield system on its ventral surface, and lands on a (very long) runway like a conventional aircraft.

The subsequent history of the STS program is best summarized by a review of the shuttle fleet NASA built, some of the prominent STS missions, and the ultimate fate of each shuttle to date. All shuttles were given the designation “OV” (orbital vehicle) followed by three numbers. If the first number is a zero, then NASA intended the shuttle for tests, never an actual mission. A one indicates that the shuttle was intended for orbital flight. All space shuttle missions are given the designation “STS”, followed by a hyphen and then a number. I have included the STS number for those most notable (or tragic) missions:

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