Six Wheels on Martian Regolith: 20 Years Since NASA's Pathfinder Mission Launched to the Red Planet

With the deployed petals and airbags of the lander in the foreground, the Sojourner rover can be seen at work in the middle-distance. Photo Credit: NASA

With the deployed petals and airbags of the lander in the foreground, the Sojourner rover can be seen at work in the middle-distance. Photo Credit: NASA

Having alighted on the Red Planet in July 1997, and having been dug out of Martian regolith by Mark Watney as part of his efforts to achieve salvation, NASA’s Pathfinder mission—which rose from Earth 20 years ago, tonight—has experienced both an exciting past and an excitingly fictitious future. Launched into the night at 1:58 a.m. EST on 4 December 1996, aboard a Delta II booster, Pathfinder went on to become the United States’ first mission to Mars in almost two decades and the first wheeled vehicle to successfully traverse the planet’s ochre-hued surface. In so doing, its six-wheeled Sojourner rover laid the cornerstone for subsequent roving missions, from the Spirit and Opportunity twins to today’s Curiosity and, ahead, to NASA’s in-work Mars 2020.

Original plans saw Pathfinder as part of the expansive Mars Environmental Survey (MESUR) project, which sought to place a network of 16 seismometer-equipped landers in different locations on the surface between 1999 and 2003. Leading this assault on the Red Planet was MESUR-Pathfinder, which would drop a stationary lander and six-wheeled micro-rover onto the surface in July 1997. However, in the aftermath of the loss of NASA’s Mars Observer mission, much of the MESUR infrastructure was shelved, leaving Pathfinder as the only member of the project to bear fruit.

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'Our Own Little Spaceship': 15 Years Since the Flag-Bearing Mission of STS-108 (Part 2)

On STS-108, Linda Godwin became the only woman to have spacewalked outside both Mir and the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

On STS-108, Linda Godwin became the only woman to have spacewalked outside both Mir and the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

At the cusp of nightfall on 5 December 2001, Space Shuttle Endeavour dispelled some of the darkness which had cloaked the world for several months. Less than 12 weeks since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States—and characterized by a heightened sense of security at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida—STS-108 was the first U.S. piloted space mission since an event which cost almost 3,000 innocent lives. As detailed in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, Endeavour’s crew rocketed into orbit with a hefty payload of science and supplies for the International Space Station (ISS), together with a poignant cargo of New York City police patches and badges, a New York Fire Department flag, and almost 6,000 small U.S. flags in honor of the victims and their families.

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'Let Freedom Roar': 15 Years Since the Flag-Bearing Mission of STS-108 (Part 1)

As evidenced by these three hats on-console in the Mission Control Center (MCC) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, STS-108 truly let freedom roar on 5 December 2001. Photo Credit: NASA

As evidenced by these three hats on-console in the Mission Control Center (MCC) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, STS-108 truly let freedom roar on 5 December 2001. Photo Credit: NASA

Fifteen years ago, this week—as America and the world reeled from the 9/11 terrorist atrocities—Space Shuttle Endeavour launched on a poignant, 12-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS). For STS-108 was the first U.S. piloted spaceflight to occur after the tragedy which cost almost 3,000 human lives. In the words of STS-108 Commander Dom Gorie, speaking to Launch Director Mike Leinbach in the minutes before the shuttle’s 5 December 2001 liftoff, months of sorrow were replaced by a renewed sense of optimism and shared purpose. “From the entire crew, we’re well aware that for over 200 years and certainly over the last two months, freedom rings loud and clear across this country,” Gorie told Leinbach. “But right here and now, it’s time to let freedom roar!”

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SpaceX Targeting Dec. 16 Return to Flight from Vandenberg with First Iridium NEXT Satellites

File photo of a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket in a processing hangar. The company is now targeting Dec. 16, 2016 for their "Return to Flight" to launch 10 Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg AFB, Ca. The mission comes three months after a Falcon-9 rocket exploded while fueling during a launch wet dress rehearsal. Photo Credit: SpaceX

File photo of a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket in a processing hangar. The company is now targeting Dec. 16, 2016, for their “Return to Flight” to launch 10 Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. The mission comes three months after a Falcon-9 rocket exploded while fueling during a launch wet dress rehearsal. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is aiming to return their Falcon-9 rocket to flight (RTF) later this month from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., pending FAA approval following a Sept. 1 explosion at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., which took out their rocket, launch complex, and their customer’s AMOS-6 satellite.

Although the investigation is still ongoing, SpaceX is confident that the accident was related to flight preparation, rather than a vehicle or engineering design issue. That said, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company is now targeting Dec. 16 to return Falcon-9 to launch, aiming for a 12:36 p.m. PST liftoff from Space Launch Complex 4E to deliver 10 Iridium NEXT satellites to low-Earth orbit.

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Smallest ISS Crew of the Decade Discusses Upcoming Mission

"Like an old married couple" was Jack Fischer's description of the camaraderie between himself and Fyodor Yurchikhin. The pair will launch in March 2017 for a six-month expedition to the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: Michael Galindo/AmericaSpace

“Like an old married couple” was Jack Fischer’s description of the camaraderie between himself and Fyodor Yurchikhin. The pair will launch in March 2017 for a six-month expedition to the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: Michael Galindo/AmericaSpace

You might be forgiven for thinking that one chair was missing at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, on the afternoon of Wednesday, 30 November, for only two seats are reserved for the next crew of the International Space Station (ISS). As reported previously by AmericaSpace, Russia recently decided to reduce the number of cosmonauts aboard the station in 2017 from three to two; in part due to ongoing problems getting its long-delayed Nauka (“Science”) laboratory module ready for flight. Scheduled to launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 27 March aboard Soyuz MS-04, veteran Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and “rookie” NASA flyer Jack Fischer will aim to perform the first “fast rendezvous” of a piloted vehicle in over a year and their six-month expedition will mark them out as the smallest ISS crew of the decade so far.

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Gateway to the Ring-Grazing Orbits: Cassini Conducts New Flybys of Titan and Enceladus

Cassini conducted its next-to-last flyby of Saturn's moon Titan today, in preparation of the Ring-Grazing Orbits has of its mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cassini conducted its next-to-last flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan yesterday, in preparation of the Ring-Grazing Orbits has of its mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As reported earlier this week, the Cassini spacecraft is now preparing to make a series of very close passes by the edges of Saturn’s rings, known as Ring-Grazing Orbits. Yesterday, Cassini conducted a close flyby of Saturn’s largest moon Titan; this is the second-to-last ever flyby of Titan before Cassini enters the Grand Finale phase of its mission, culminating in a deliberate plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017. During this flyby, Cassini focused on mapping the surface and surface temperatures and used Titan’s gravity to help place the spacecraft into the Ring-Grazing Orbits.

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'Because I'm Scared to Death': 25 Years Since the Shortened Mission of STS-44 (Part 2)

Fred Gregory leads the STS-44 crew out of the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), 25 years ago, this week. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Fred Gregory leads the STS-44 crew out of the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), 25 years ago, this week. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Twenty-five years ago, this week, what should have been the third-longest space shuttle mission of its time—and the longest Department of Defense piloted spaceflight—got underway with a rousing night-time liftoff from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Aboard Atlantis for STS-44, which launched on the evening of 24 November 1991, Commander Fred Gregory, Pilot Tom Henricks, and Mission Specialists Jim Voss, Story Musgrave, and Mario Runco were accompanied by a professional Army imagery analyst, named Tom Hennen. Their task was to spend almost 10 days in orbit, deploying a $300 million Defense Support Program (DSP) infrared early-warning satellite and supporting a range of experiments designed to demonstrate the ability of a human observer to identify selected targets on the ground.

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'Not a Dysfunctional Family': 25 Years Since the Shortened Mission of STS-44 (Part 1)

The Defense Support Program (DSP) satellite, attached to is Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster, is deployed from Atlantis' payload bay at the beginning of the STS-44 mission. Photo Credit: NASA

The Defense Support Program (DSP) satellite, attached to is Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster, is deployed from Atlantis’ payload bay at the beginning of the STS-44 mission. Photo Credit: NASA

A quarter-century has now elapsed since a space shuttle mission was forced to come home early, having already lost its original commander and gained a professional U.S. Army imagery analyst as a crew member. In November 1991, Atlantis and her six-strong STS-44 crew—Commander Fred Gregory, Pilot Tom Henricks, Mission Specialists Jim Voss, Story Musgrave, and Mario Runco, and Payload Specialist Tom Hennen—supported the deployment of a Defense Support Program (DSP) infrared early-warning satellite, as well as a multitude of military experiments. However, the failure of a critical piece of navigational equipment forced their 10-day voyage to be shortened and Atlantis returned to Earth after a week in orbit. Still, STS-44 retains a place as one of the longest Department of Defense-dedicated shuttle flights ever completed.

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Cassini Spacecraft Prepares for Incredible 'Ring-Grazing Orbits' at Saturn

View from Cassini of Saturn and its main rings. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

View from Cassini of Saturn and its main rings. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Cassini mission to Saturn has been one of the most successful planetary missions ever, revealing the ringed giant and its moons as never before. Sadly, that mission is scheduled to end Sept. 15, 2017, and in preparation the spacecraft will be making some never-done-before maneuvers as it gets ready to take the final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on that date, aka the Grand Finale. Next week, Cassini will perform one of these feats, flying just past the edge of Saturn’s main rings.

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Expedition 50 Crew to Celebrate Thanksgiving Aboard Space Station

Pictured during Expedition 42's Thanksgiving celebration in November 2014, today's feast will come after a busy workday for the Expedition 50 crew. Photo Credit: NASA

Pictured during Expedition 42’s Thanksgiving celebration in November 2014, today’s feast will come after a busy workday for the Expedition 50 crew. Photo Credit: NASA

The 50th skipper of the International Space Station (ISS) and the first woman to spend as many as three Thanksgivings away from the Home Planet—together with their four Russian and French crewmates—will tuck into smoked turkey and cherried blueberry cobbler today (Thursday, 24 November), after wrapping up a full workday aboard the orbital outpost. Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough and his crew of Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov, Andrei Borisenko, and Oleg Novitsky, Frenchman Thomas Pesquet, and former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson will continue an unbroken period of 16 years in which an American citizen has been in orbit on Thanksgiving.

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