'Masterful Performances': 15 Years Since Columbia's Last Fully Successful Mission (Part 2)

Columbia roars into the pre-dawn darkness on 1 March 2002, beginning her final wholly-successful mission. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Rising into the pre-dawn darkness on 1 March 2002—15 years ago, next week—Space Shuttle Columbia’s 27th mission into low-Earth orbit would achieve, literally, the greatest heights of her storied career. In more than two decades of operational service, she had flown the shortest and longest shuttle missions and had become the first crewed orbital vehicle to be commanded by male and female pilots. But in March 2002, on her last wholly-successful mission before her untimely loss, Columbia would travel to an altitude of 360 miles (580 km) to repair and service NASA’s iconic Hubble Space Telescope (HST) for the fourth time. Operating in a low-Earth orbital domain more than 100 miles (160 km) higher than Columbia’s previous missions, Hubble would see the queen of the Space Shuttle fleet reach the highest altitude in her career.

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'That Your Number Hadn't Come Up': 15 Years Since Columbia's Last Fully Successful Mission (Part 1)

The Hubble Space Telescope appears to “fly” over Earth as it is photographed during STS-109. Photo Credit: NASA

Fifteen years ago, next week, Columbia roared into orbit on her final wholly-successful mission, STS-109. It was the 27th flight of a vehicle which had ushered in the dawn of the Space Shuttle era, back in April 1981, and gone on to secure a raft of other accomplishments: becoming the first piloted spacecraft to return to low-Earth orbit, the first to deploy satellites, the first to carry the European Spacelab research facility and the first to be commanded by a woman. Throughout her career, Columbia had flown both the shortest and the longest shuttle missions and even today, more than a decade after her untimely demise, she is the third-most-flown member of the fleet, having spent over 300 days in space and carried into orbit 126 men and women from the United States, Germany, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Italy, France and Israel.

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NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope Discovers Seven Earth-Sized Worlds Orbiting Nearby Star

Artist’s conception of standing on the surface of exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The search for exoplanets – planets orbiting other stars – has been one of the most exciting developments in astronomy and space science in recent years. The first couple exoplanets were found in 1992, and now over 3,400 have been confirmed, with over 5,000 additional candidates. Some of these are smaller rocky worlds similar in size to Earth, bringing scientists close to finding “Earth 2.0” – another planet with water and, perhaps, life. Today, NASA announced another key discovery, bringing us even closer to finding another living world – a star with not just one or two Earth-sized planets orbiting it, but seven. Three of those planets are in the star’s habitable zone, where, depending upon other surface conditions, lakes or oceans of liquid water could exist.

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Juno Spacecraft to Remain in Same Orbit, But Science Observations of Jupiter Continue

Spectacular view of Jupiter’s south pole from Juno, taken on Feb. 2, 2017 at 6:06 a.m. PT (9:06 a.m. ET), from an altitude of about 62,800 miles (101,000 kilometers) above the cloud tops (enhanced color version). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/John Landino

NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been orbiting the gas giant planet Jupiter since July 4, 2016, and has already greatly increased scientists’ understanding of this fascinating world, the “King of Planets.” For the past while now, Juno has been in an elongated 56-day orbit, which brings the spacecraft close in over the cloud tops before swinging out farther away from the planet again. The plan had been for Juno to then switch to a closer, 14-day orbit, but due to growing concerns over another engine burn possibly resulting in a less-than-desirable new orbit, that plan has now been scrapped. Juno will now remain in its current orbit for the remainder of the mission.

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SpaceX Soars from 39A for First Time, Delivers Dragon to Space & Returns Falcon to Earth

The inaugural SpaceX Falcon-9 to fly off historic NASA Launch Complex 39A, delivering their Dragon cargo capsule on the CRS-10 resupply flight to the ISS. Photo Credit: John Studwell / AmericaSpace

For the 30th time in under seven years, the roar of Merlin rocket engines heralded another mission for SpaceX earlier today, as the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services company delivered its latest payload to orbit, earlier today (Sunday). Flying for the tenth time in its “Upgraded” configuration—and its maiden launch from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida—the workhorse Falcon 9 booster behaved flawlessly, as it delivered the CRS-10 Dragon cargo ship into low-Earth orbit, bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

After yesterday’s launch attempt was scrubbed at T-13 seconds, due to a Thrust Vector Control (TVC) issue, Sunday proved charmed and the Upgraded Falcon 9 roared aloft at 9:38 a.m. EST. In doing so, SpaceX fulfilled another requirement under its Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA. Current plans call for Dragon to be robotically captured and berthed at the space station on Monday, where it will remain for about four weeks.

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'Just a Normal Day': Remembering John Glenn's Mercury Flight (Part 2)

Bobbing gently in the waves after a highly successful - though nail-bitingly harrowing - mission, Friendship 7 is readied for winching out of the water. Photo Credit: NASA

Bobbing gently in the waves after a highly successful – though nail-bitingly harrowing – mission, Friendship 7 is readied for winching out of the water. Photo Credit: NASA

On the afternoon of 20 February 1962, millions of Americans listened and watched, transfixed as their countryman, John Glenn, plummeted back to Earth after completing three orbits of Earth. As detailed in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, it was a triumphant mission, but was also laced with drama, for worrisome indications had arisen that the heat shield and landing bag of his Friendship 7 capsule might not be locked into position. If the critical heat shield was loose, it was feared that Glenn would burn alive as he re-entered the atmosphere, and for this reason he had been instructed to keep his retrorocket package—which covered the heat shield during the early stages of descent—attached until he was through the worst of the heating. And if the heat shield was loose, only the retro package and its three metal straps had any chance of saving America’s newest hero from a fiery fate.

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'Zero-G and I Feel Fine': Remembering John Glenn's Mercury Flight (Part 1)

Blurred and somewhat lacking in detail, this image of John Glenn in orbit aboard Friendship 7 represents one of the United States' greatest advances in space technology in the 20th century: the effort to achieve piloted orbital flight. Photo Credit: NASA

Blurred and somewhat lacking in detail, this image of John Glenn in orbit aboard Friendship 7 represents one of the United States’ greatest advances in space technology in the 20th century: the effort to achieve piloted orbital flight. Photo Credit: NASA

Two months after his death, aged 95, Monday will be a somber date for America’s human space program, as the 55th anniversary of John Glenn’s pioneering flight aboard Friendship 7—during which he became the first U.S. citizen in history to orbit the globe—passes without him. Glenn’s four hours and 55 minutes spent inside that tiny Mercury capsule, all those years ago, galvanized a generation into pushing ahead with President John F. Kennedy’s goal to land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. And yet Glenn’s mission on 20 February 1962 was a truly hazardous undertaking and, but for several twists and turns of exceptionally good fortune, could easily have cost the astronaut his life.

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Pad 39A Set for First Post-Shuttle Launch, as SpaceX Readies for Weekend Return to Space Station

Sunday’s Static Fire Test left smoke, flame and the roar of rocket engines reverberating across Pad 39A for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle era. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Siebert/AmericaSpace

After a multi-month hiatus, SpaceX stands ready to resume cargo delivery flights to the International Space Station (ISS), under the terms of its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) commitment to NASA. The CRS-10 mission of its Dragon spacecraft—laden with 5,489 pounds (2,490 kg) of pressurized and unpressurized payloads, supplies and experiments for the outpost—will launch atop an Upgraded Falcon 9 booster, no sooner than 10:01 a.m. EST Saturday, 18 February. The “instantaneous” window may be shifted slightly sooner, with Patrick Air Force Base noting a slightly earlier T-0 of 9:58 a.m. This will be the first launch from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida since the end of the Space Shuttle era in July 2011. The complex is currently under a 20-year lease to SpaceX, supporting its Upgraded Falcon 9 and forthcoming Falcon Heavy operations.

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Landing on an Ocean Moon: NASA Unveils New Plan to Search for Life on Europa

Artist’s conception of the proposed Europa lander, with sampling arm extended. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For decades now, Europa has beckoned – this moon of Jupiter which is frozen on the outside but hides a global ocean on the inside – has so far only been visited by spacecraft during brief flybys. Scientists and the public alike have been wanting to return to this fascinating little world since it offers the possibility of maybe, just maybe, being home to some kind of life. Plans have been inching forward for a new mission to conduct multiple, closer flybys of Europa, to learn more about the ocean just below the ice, but what about actually landing? A lander would be a more difficult prospect since Europa doesn’t have an atmosphere, but is certainly doable. Now, NASA has received a formal science report on how best to conduct such a mission. This is a significant step toward finally being able have the view of looking up at Jupiter hanging in the inky black Europan sky – a dream of many for a long time.

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Ready for a Margarita: 20 Years Since the Second Hubble Servicing Mission (Part 2)

Twenty years ago, on STS-82, the Hubble Space Telescope was transformed from a 1970s instrument with 1980s optics into an observatory for 21st-century scientific discovery. Photo Credit: NASA

Twenty years ago, on STS-82, the Hubble Space Telescope was transformed from a 1970s instrument with 1980s optics into an observatory for 21st-century scientific discovery. Photo Credit: NASA

Two decades ago, yesterday, on 11 February 1997, Space Shuttle Discovery roared into the night with a seven-strong crew—Commander Ken Bowersox, Pilot Scott “Doc” Horowitz, Payload Commander Mark Lee and Mission Specialists Greg Harbaugh, Steve Smith, Joe Tanner and Steve Hawley—to perform the second servicing of the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope (HST). During five back-to-back sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA), the astronauts installed two new scientific instruments aboard the iconic telescope and provided the tools for an all-new observatory for the 21st century.

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