All Good Things: Countdown Begins Towards Cassini's 'Grand Finale' Around Saturn

Artist's concept of Cassini's final orbits between the Saturn's innermost rings and the planet's cloud tops. This set of orbits will consist the last leg of Cassini's mission, called 'The Grand Finale', which will culminate with a plunge on Saturn's atmosphere on September 2017. Image Credit: Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Artist’s concept of Cassini’s final orbits between the Saturn’s innermost rings and the planet’s cloud tops. This set of orbits will consist the last leg of Cassini’s mission, called ‘The Grand Finale’, which will culminate with a plunge on Saturn’s atmosphere on September 2017. Image Credit: Image Credit: NASA/JPL

It has become something of a hackneyed phrase but in the case of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft it is rather fitting: an epic mission of exploration of Saturn that has single-handedly changed our view of the ringed planet, its moons and their potential habitability, yet like all good things it must come to an end. Having nearly completed two full decades in space, Cassini has now entered its final 18 months around Saturn on what has been a tremendously successful and productive mission, full of unexpected and ground-breaking discoveries. Last week the mission’s science team officially began the 1-year countdown towards the start of Cassini’s ‘Grand Finale’, which will culminate with an end-of-mission daring plunge on Saturn’s cloud tops on September 15, 2017.

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Evidence from Curiosity Rover Shows Mars Once Had Oxygen-Rich Atmosphere

Mars' atmosphere is thin, dry and cold now, but it used to be thicker and contained a lot more oxygen. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Mars’ atmosphere is thin, dry, and cold now, but it used to be thicker and contained a lot more oxygen. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Mars’ atmosphere is thin and cold, composed primarily of carbon dioxide along with other trace gases and some water vapor. Evidence has continued to mount, however, that the rarified atmosphere we see today once used to be much thicker and possibly warmer, making it potentially more life-friendly early on. Just how thick and how warm is still a subject of much debate, but there is also another interesting aspect to all of this: New evidence from the Curiosity rover has shown that the Martian atmosphere also used to have a lot more oxygen in it than it does now. Today, only very small traces of oxygen can be found, as opposed to Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere. So what does this mean? Could there be biological implications?

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Malarkey Milkshakes: 25 Years Since STS-39 (Part 2)

After almost two months of delays, Discovery roars into orbit on 28 April 1991, 25 years ago, this week. Her STS-39 mission marked the longest shuttle flight ever conducted for the Department of Defense. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

After almost two months of delays, Discovery roars into orbit on 28 April 1991, 25 years ago, this week. Her STS-39 mission marked the longest shuttle flight ever conducted for the Department of Defense. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Twenty-five years ago, next week, one of the most complex space shuttle missions in history got underway with a spectacular liftoff from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, the eight-day STS-39 was the longest shuttle mission ever conducted for the Department of Defense, whilst its seven-man crew—Commander Mike Coats, Pilot Blaine Hammond, and Mission Specialists Lacy Veach, Rick Hieb, Greg Harbaugh, Don McMonagle, and the first African-American spacefarer, veteran astronaut Guy Bluford—was the largest ever flown on a military flight. Theirs would involve the deployment and retrieval of a free-flying satellite, laden with infrared sensors for atmospheric and other research, as well as a multitude of experiments mounted inside Shuttle Discovery’s cavernous payload bay.

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'What Did You Tell My Wife?': 25 Years Since STS-39 (Part 1)

The Infrared Background Signature Survey (IBSS), attached to a deployable Shuttle Pallet Satellite (SPAS), was one of the principal payloads aboard STS-39. The eight-day flight was the longest shuttle mission ever conducted in support of the Department of Defense. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

The Infrared Background Signature Survey (IBSS), attached to a deployable Shuttle Pallet Satellite (SPAS), was one of the principal payloads aboard STS-39. The eight-day flight was the longest shuttle mission ever conducted in support of the Department of Defense. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Thirty years ago, the loss of Challenger, on 28 January 1986, brought a healthy dose of reality about the perceived safety of the space shuttle for many of NASA’s astronauts. Among them was Air Force Col. Guy Bluford—the first African-American spacefarer—who had recently returned from his second shuttle mission. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Bluford took preparatory courses at the University of Houston at Clear Lake for a master’s in business administration, which he received in 1987, but his astronaut career was not yet over. Before he hung up his spacefaring helmet for good, Bluford would have flown one of the most ambitious shuttle missions ever attempted: a mission which not only included the first all-NASA crew of seven astronauts, but which turned out to be the longest piloted spaceflight ever conducted for the Department of Defense. That mission, STS-39, launched exactly a quarter-century ago, this month, in April 1991.

Continue reading ‘What Did You Tell My Wife?’: 25 Years Since STS-39 (Part 1)

Orbital ATK Negotiating to Use VAB for Potential Next Gen EELV Rocket for USAF

NASA and Orbital ATK are in negotiations for the Dulles, VA-based company to make use of the agency's VAB High Bay 2 to process a potential next generation EELV rocket that Orbital ATK received Air Force funding to begin development on earlier this year. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / awaltersphoto.com

NASA and Orbital ATK are in negotiations for the Dulles, Va.-based company to make use of the agency’s VAB High Bay 2 to process a potential next generation EELV rocket that Orbital ATK received Air Force funding to begin development on earlier this year. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / awaltersphoto.com

This week NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) announced they are in negotiations with Dulles, Va.-based Orbital ATK for use of facilities at the Florida spaceport—facilities which exist to process rockets and integrate them with spacecraft (such as capsules and space shuttles) for flight.

Little details were released other than the fact that negotiations are underway on a “prospective property use agreement, which also will include a mobile launcher platform,” to use High Bay 2 in the famed Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). The enormous 525-foot-tall facility houses four high bays and was used previously to ready NASA’s Apollo Saturn V moon rockets and space shuttles for flight, before being driven atop giant crawlers to their seaside launch pads 39A and 39B a few miles east.

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NASA-Stennis Observes 50th Anniversary of First Saturn V Test-Firings

A colossal pall of smoke rises above the A-2 Test Stand at the Mississippi Test Facility on 23 April 1966, as NASA test-fires the J-2 engines for the S-II second stage of the Saturn V. Fifty years later, as Stennis Space Center, the journey continues. Photo Credit: NASA

A colossal pall of smoke rises above the A-2 Test Stand at the Mississippi Test Facility on 23 April 1966, as NASA test-fires the J-2 engines for the S-II second stage of the Saturn V. Fifty years later, as Stennis Space Center, the journey continues. Photo Credit: NASA

Fifty years ago, tomorrow, on 23 April 1966, a reverberating roll of thunder, accompanied by an orange-red glimmer of flame, brought a patch of Hancock County, Miss., on the banks of the scenic East Pearl River, to a figurative and literal standstill. In the gray mist and murk of a late spring morning, the S-II-T—the Structural and Dynamic Test Vehicle for the second stage of the mighty Saturn V rocket, which would one day deliver the first humans to lunar orbit and to the Moon’s surface—underwent its inaugural “hot-fire” test. For 15 seconds, the stage’s five J-2 engines pummeled the A-2 Test Stand with around a million pounds (450,000 kg) of propulsive yield. It was the opening trial of the largest and most powerful liquid oxygen/hydrogen rocket stage ever built, as well as representing an integral component of the largest and most powerful booster ever brought to operational status. “I don’t know yet what method we will use to get to the Moon,” Wernher von Braun once remarked, “but I do know that we have to go through Mississippi to get there.”

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Sailing Our Way to the Stars: An Interview with Bruce Wiegmann

An artist's concept showing the Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System E-Sail with its tethers fully deployed. The HERTS concept is currently undergoing testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, as part of the space agency's NIAC Phase II program. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC

An artist’s concept showing the Heliopause Electrostatic Rapid Transit System E-Sail with its tethers fully deployed. The HERTS concept is currently undergoing testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, as part of the space agency’s NIAC Phase II program. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC

One of the least studied and understood parts of the Solar System is the outer heliosphere: the realm of the Sun’s magnetic influence that extends well beyond the orbit of Neptune, composed of the steady stream of charged particles that is released by the Sun’s upper atmosphere at speeds up to 800 km/second, known as the solar wind. Even though NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has provided scientists with the first in-situ measurements of the heliosphere’s outer limits during its historic passage into interstellar space in 2012, the end of the heliosphere (the heliopause) remains a largely unexplored region. Acknowledging this reality the National Academy of Science’s 2012 Heliophysics Decadal Survey underscored, among other things, the need for the development of advanced propulsion systems that could propel space science missions toward the heliopause and beyond within the timeframe of a single decade.

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BEAM Continues Space Station Expansion, Long After 'Assembly Complete'

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is maneuvered by Canadarm2 on Saturday, 16 April, to its eventual location at the aft Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) of the Tranquility node. It formed the 15th long-duration pressurized module to be attached to the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: Tim Kopra/NASA/Twitter

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is maneuvered by Canadarm2 on Saturday, 16 April, to its eventual location at the aft Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) of the Tranquility node. It formed the 15th long-duration pressurized module to be attached to the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: Tim Kopra/NASA/Twitter

Depending upon how you count them, around 15 permanent pressurized modules now adorn the International Space Station (ISS), as the outpost enters its 19th year in orbit and its 17th year with a permanent human presence aboard. Last Saturday’s successful installation of the newly-arrived Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM)—the first human-rated expandable facility ever attached to an inhabited spacecraft—will provide an additional 565 cubic feet (16 cubic meters) of pressurized volume to the ISS. This is on top of the space station’s previous total of 32,300 cubic feet (916 cubic meters), afforded by a mixture of U.S., Russian, European, and Japanese modules. In fact, during the early stages of its on-orbit assembly, more than a decade ago, the ISS had already firmly established itself as the largest occupied spacecraft ever built.

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New 'KEM' Proposal Would Extend New Horizons Post-Pluto Mission to 2021

If approved by NASA, the KEM proposal will allow New Horizons to continue its study of the outer fringes of the Solar System until 2021, including a flyby of 2014 MU69. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

If approved by NASA, the KEM proposal will allow New Horizons to continue its study of the outer fringes of the Solar System until 2021, including a flyby of 2014 MU69. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The New Horizons mission has revolutionized our understanding of Pluto and its moons, after conducting the first-ever flyby last summer. These mysterious worlds were finally seen up close, and this new view created as many, if not more, new questions as it answered old ones. While the flyby may be long over now, the spacecraft itself is still in excellent health and continues to plunge deeper into the Kuiper Belt at the outer fringes of the Solar System. Scientists have been eager for New Horizons to continue exploring this region farther out past Pluto, and now a proposal has been formally submitted to NASA to do just that. This extended mission will conduct a flyby of at least one more Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) and last until 2021.

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'Exploring Space as a Planet': 15 Years Since STS-100 Shook Hands at the Space Station (Part 2)

The multi-national STS-100 crew comprised, in orange suits, from left, Yuri Lonchakov, Kent Rominger, Umberto Guidoni, Jeff Ashby and John Phillips, and in white EVA suits Scott Parazynski (left) and Chris Hadfield. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

The multi-national STS-100 crew comprised, in orange suits, from left, Yuri Lonchakov, Kent Rominger, Umberto Guidoni, Jeff Ashby, and John Phillips, and in white EVA suits Scott Parazynski (left) and Chris Hadfield. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

When NASA and its worldwide partners began assembling the International Space Station (ISS) in low-Earth orbit in the late winter of 1998, it was possible to conduct the early tasks with a combination of spacewalks and robotics. The shuttle’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm—first trialed on STS-2 in November 1981—had been utilized over the years for a multitude of tasks, ranging from satellite deployment and retrieval to the maneuvering of spacewalking astronauts, and was ideally suited for ISS assembly work. It had assisted with the installation of the station’s Unity node, its Destiny lab, and the first electricity-generating set of U.S.-built solar arrays. But by the spring of 2001, the fledgling outpost was becoming so large that shuttle-based robotics were no longer able to accomplish the task alone.

Canada had been a long-standing partner in the station program, virtually from its conception as Space Station Freedom in the mid-1980s, and had developed the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS), also known as “Canadarm2.” Measuring 57.7 feet (17.6 meters) in length, the “Big Arm” was about 12.5 percent longer and more than four times heavier than its shuttle cousin. Through the unique presence of two “wrist” joints and two “hands,” it was able to “inchworm” along the ISS structure by interfacing with Power and Data Grapple Fixtures (PDGFs).

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