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NASA is Back in the Game – A New Era in Space Exploration

Today was a historic day for American spaceflight.  After more than forty years America finally has a launch vehicle to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit.  It’s not as if we’ve wasted our time hanging out in LEO since 1972, we’ve learned some truly amazing things about space as an environment since then.  After the Apollo program ended we built Skylab where humans had their first extended stays in space and began the study of the effect of micro gravity on the human body, animals, and plants.  Skylab led to Mir, the Russian space station, we sent up the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, performed many incredible experiments with the space shuttle, built the International Space Station and much more up until now.  Now we have turned the page on all that we’ve accomplished since Gene Cernan climbed back into the LEM a final time in 1972.  We’re not leaving all those accomplishments behind, we’re simply moving forward, and upward.

Space Launch System (SLS) test flight of the unmanned Orion capsule (Credit:  CNN)

Space Launch System (SLS) test flight of the unmanned Orion capsule (Credit: CNN)

Today was the first test flight of the Orion Crew Module (OCM) on board a Delta IV Heavy Rocket.  The whole unit together comprises the Space Launch System (SLS).  Today’s test flight was unmanned so instead of astronauts the OCM was packed with sensors to monitor the performance of the capsule’s performance during every second of the 4 hour flight.  The SLS looks very similar to the Apollo-era Saturn V rockets.  While not quite as tall it is certainly more powerful than the rockets that carried Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969.  SLS features three separate booster engines compared to the Saturn V’s three engines in one block.  The goal is more usable fuel to go deeper into space.

No human has left low-Earth orbit in over forty years but today’s test flight took us one step closer to that achievement.  The OCM was blasted 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface.  For reference the Hubble telescope which was at the upper limit of the space shuttle’s range orbits at 347 miles.  At an altitude of 3,600 miles you could see most of the Earth out the window.  The photo below was taken from the OCM and is probably very familiar if you’re old enough to remember the days of the Apollo missions when we first left the Earth behind.  Now four decades removed from those heady days an entire generation has grown up without seeing these kind of images shown on the news.  It’s my hope that as the SLS-Orion program moves forward the American public will rediscover a love for space exploration that its parents and grandparents had which made our country great.

An image we haven't seen live for over 40 years.  (Credit NASA)

An image we haven’t seen live for over 40 years. (Credit NASA)

The seeds of success have been sown by hard work, determination, and talent from all the people who have thus far worked on the SLS-Orion program.  Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13 wrote in his book Lost Moon, “I look up at the moon and wonder when we’ll be going back and who that will be?”  We’ve yet to answer that question but right now we can at least say, “Soon.”

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An “Opportunity” to See

Sometimes the Martian surface can look pretty bleak and uninspiring.  But then, there are those images that come from NASA’s Opportunity rover that just wow you!  This image released by NASA came from Opportunity’s Pancam does just that!  This image is a composite of about a dozen images  from the basin of the Endeavour crater taken in multiple wavelengths during the Martian sunset.  The different wavelengths allow for increased contrast between different regions in the crater such as the rocky terrain at the base of the rover to the dunes, and the eastern rim in the background.  The Endeavor crater is 14 miles (22 kilometers) across which is big enough to cover the entire area of Seattle!  The  resilient Opportunity rover has been roaming the Red Planet’s surface for an amazing eight years and still produces amazing images and useful science!  It’s successor, the Curiosity rover, will touch down on Mars on August 5th, 2012 via live video stream from an on-board camera so you won’t want to miss that!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ

An Epic Landing

This is probably old news to many informed astro and space nerds (and Martians) but it still blows my mind every time I think about it.  As we know, NASA launched its massive Martian science laboratory named “Curiosity” late last year.  The one-ton rover will make the 570 million kilometer journey to Mars and enter the atmosphere on August 5, 2012.  Apart from the never before attempted method of landing using sky crane to lower the huge rover onto the surface, this landing is exciting for another reason.  Once the heat shield on the capsule is jettisoned, the small camera on the rover’s body will begin recording the last mile or two of the descent to the Martian surface shooting 1.3 millisecond exposures at 5 frames per second for approximately 2 mintues.  I’m imagining myself five months from now sitting in front of my computer with my face just inches away from the screen completely enamored with the live video coming in from another world!  It’s going to be a total geek out moment for me!  I’m not sure where the video will be viewed from, but my guess would be the Jet Propulsion Laboratory website.

Sky Crane method of landing on Mars Credit: Harry Whitver Air & Space Magazine

Also exciting about the video is that if it’s live NASA won’t be able to false color anything so it’ll be 100% authentic footage of the surface of Mars!  If that doesn’t excite you, I’m sorry.  I’m basically cursing the fact that it’s only March!  On the other hand, today is the first day of spring and the Vernal equinox so that’s pretty cool.  Get your eggs out today and try to stand them on edge.

Beautiful M95 Credit: ESO/VLT

More Mars-related news keeps coming in!  On Friday last week a potential supernova was discovered in Messier 95, a beautiful barred spiral galaxy in the constellation Leo and a part of the nearby Leo I group of galaxies.  M95 is easy to find right now because it is a mere 1/2° away from Mars.  That makes it visible in the same field of view as Mars in most telescopes at lower power.  The only trouble is that Mars is so bright this time of year that it floods the M95 area with light making it more difficult to spot.  The bright speck believed to be a supernova is located in one of the spiral arms of the galaxy so once located it is an easy find.  While unconfirmed as of yet, the supernova is believed to be a Type II which are common in spiral arms.  The nova is currently about magnitude 12 so it is invisible to the naked eye but should be easily discerned with a 6″ or bigger scope under dark skies.  There’s currently no moon so that should definitely aid your quest.  Happy hunting!

Mars Images App

Mars Images app

Smartphones really can do some amazing things!  The latest app I downloaded to my iPhone is the Mars Images app from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  It uses the comm uplink from the long-lived Martian rover Opportunity and downloads them directly to your phone or tablet!  How cool is that?!  The Opportunity rover is currently “hibernating” during the harsh Martian winter but there is a pretty large cache of images already stored.  There will also be the opportunity to see images from JPL’s newest rover Curiosity when it arrives on the Red Planet in August.  You can download the app for your iOS device or Android.

Rest in pieces Phobos-Grunt

Another Russian mission to Mars, another failure to reach Mars.  The failure of the Russian Mars probe Phobos-Grunt is but the most recent chapter in a lengthening story of Russian space failures.  The Russian space agency Roscosmos is increasingly embarrassing itself more and more with every little (and big) failure it tucks into its belt.  The once proud Russian space program is now in total shambles as they try to repair the damage done by another failed interplanetary mission.  Not only is the Phobos-Grunt failure a huge financial hit for Russia, but it is a reputation killer.  It will surely take time for Roscosmos to gain the trust of the world’s space industry after this latest failure.

The Phobos-Grunt Mars probe was launched on November 9,2011 and was supposed to shoot off to Mars from low Earth orbit, LEO, as Mars reaches its closest point to Earth.  The failure occurred during the transit in LEO when the engines were supposed to ignite and propel the probe into its Mars-bound trajectory.  The engines did not light and the probe was stranded in Earth’s orbit.  For two months Roscosmos tried to regain control of the stranded probe but were unable to re-establish communication.  Then finally, yesterday, the probe lost orbital velocity and began to fall out of orbit sending it engulfed in flames back down to the surface.  While most of the 14.9 ton probe burned up upon re-entry, the remains fell into the Pacific Ocean Sunday about 800 miles west of Chile.  The spacecraft was carrying a full tank of toxic liquid propellant because of the lack of engine burn but it is believed that it all vaporized about 60 miles above the surface due to its low boiling point.  Phobos-Grunt was also carrying a small amount of the radioactive metal Cobalt-57 but the Russian space agency said that it poses no threat of contamination.

Artist's conception of Phobos-Grunt re-entry

Perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of the Phobos-Grunt saga was when the Roscosmos started pointing the finger at other countries for causing the failure.  One finger, specifically, was pointed at…you guessed it…the United States claiming that we used our military and surveillance satellites to interrupt communications with the probe.  According to Roscosmos it is very easy to use a satellite to cut off communications with a spacecraft being controlled by computers on the other side of the world.  While they’re correct in that observation you can’t help but smack yourself on the forehead!  Why on Earth would anybody want to sabotage a spacecraft heading towards Mars when the international space community has been united for over 30 years for mutual scientific advancement and understanding of our solar system?  It’s just laughable that they would try to brush off their own technological failures on another country when the Russian space chief admitted that the mission was ill-prepared but gave the mission the green light due to the limited window of opportunity for the Earth-Mars transit.

 

In my opinion, this news is worrisome for the United States.  The Russian space program seems to have fallen from grace and its once proud standard of excellence.  This is the same country that put the first satellite into orbit, put the first human being into space, and so many other monumental space advancements.  We even rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to transport our astronauts to the International Space Station since the Shuttle program is no more.  What happens when a Soyuz rocket explodes carrying American astronauts?  We rely on the the Russians for our space exploration and we can’t afford to allow their sometimes sketchy preparation and detail overlook to compromise American lives and science.  Russia really needs to get their act together as a space-capable country.  If NASA, the ESA, and the world’s confidence in the Russian space program has not been shaken I would be deeply worried.  Phobos-Grunt’s failure could be the beginning of a far worse story if they don’t start to cover all their bases and do their homework before every mission, whether great or small.  The world depends on them to be reliable and in the extremely dangerous realm of space exploration the smallest detail can lead to catastrophic and deadly results.

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