The Stars and Stripes floats inside the multi-windowed cupola of the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: NASA
“Ten, nine, eight, seven, six … Go for Main Engine Start … ”
It was a familiar preamble from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) launch commentator which closely mirrored the final seconds before each of the previous 114 space shuttle missions. Ever since the maiden voyage of the first of this reusable fleet of orbiters in April 1981, the shuttle’s trio of main engines roared to life, producing a noticeable “twang” effect, as the vehicle structurally flexed upward, before the ignition of the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) at T-0. “And liftoff of the Space Shuttle Discovery,” came the call, as six American astronauts and one German spacefarer speared into a crystal clear Florida sky, “returning to the space station, paving the way for future missions beyond.” It was 2:37:55 p.m. EDT. It was also 4 July 2006, and particular poignancy accompanied the launch of STS-121, which became the first—and so far only—occasion on which U.S. astronauts have rocketed into space on Independence Day.
Continue reading Independence Weekend: Launches, Landings, and Working in Space on the Fourth of July (Part 2)
After a 9.5-year voyage across the Solar System, New Horizons is just days away from humanity’s first close-up reconnaissance of the last of the traditionally accepted nine planets. Image Credit: NASA
Less than 10 days and a mere 7.2 million miles (11.6 million km) from its quarry—the dwarf world Pluto, its binary companion Charon, and a system of four tiny moons—NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountered an anomaly yesterday (Saturday), when communications with Earth were briefly lost. Although contact was re-established after about 80 minutes, via the worldwide antennas of the Deep Space Network (DSN), the spacecraft correctly responded to the situation by placing itself into “safe mode,” thereby allowing engineers to determine the cause of the problem. New Horizons’ extreme distance from Earth, and the resultant nine-hour round-trip communications time lag, will require between “one and several days” for normal operations to be restored. Although the New Horizons’ team expressed confidence on Twitter that the problem was being worked through, the incident adds further anxiety and nail-biting anticipation as humanity prepares for its first-time, close-range reconnaissance of the last of the Solar System’s “traditional” nine planets.
Continue reading ‘We’re Working It, Folks': New Horizons Experiences Communications Loss, Ten Days Out From Pluto
Thirty-three years ago, today, on 4 July 1982, the crew of STS-4 became the first U.S. astronauts to spend Independence Day in space. It also marked the date of their spectacular return to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Photo Credit: NASA
On the morning of 4 July 1982, a rapidly moving black and white speck appeared on the horizon at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., bringing a pair of space explorers back to Earth after a week in orbit. Minutes later, at 12:09 p.m. EDT (9:09 a.m. PDT), Shuttle Columbia and astronauts Ken Mattingly and Hank Hartsfield alighted on the 15,000-foot-long (4,600-meter) Runway 22, becoming the first U.S. space mission to be in progress on Independence Day. It was true that several key voyages of U.S. space exploration had taken place in July—not least humanity’s first piloted landing on the Moon and the joint Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP)—but until STS-4 and the flight of Mattingly and Hartsfield, no American had ever been in space on this quintessentially U.S. holiday.
Continue reading Independence Weekend: Launches, Landings, and Working in Space on the Fourth of July (Part 1)
New Horizons scientists combined the latest black-and-white map of Pluto’s surface features (left) with a map of the planet’s colors (right) to produce a detailed color portrait of the planet’s northern hemisphere (center). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
New Horizons is now just 11 days from its historic flyby exploration of the Pluto system, some three billion miles away at the entrance to the realm of our Solar System’s still unexplored Kuiper Belt, and this morning (July 3) the mission team successfully uploaded the command load flight plan to the piano-sized spacecraft for its close flyby 7,800 miles above Pluto on July 14. At the same time, the images just keep getting better, now in true color (what your naked eye would see) and showing features as small as 100 miles across, revealing a reddish-brown world reminiscent of Mars as the spacecraft clears 720,000 miles every day on its journey to close out humanity’s initial reconnaissance of the major bodies in our Solar System.
“Pluto’s reddish color has been known for decades, but New Horizons is now allowing us to correlate the color of different places on the surface with their geology and soon, with their compositions,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo. “This will make it possible to build sophisticated computer models to understand how Pluto has evolved to its current appearance.”
Continue reading Flight Plan for New Horizons’ Historic Pluto Flyby Uploaded to Spacecraft as Surface Details Begin to Emerge
From NASA: “Image is an artist’s conception of the Pluto occultation seen close-up, not a photo.” NASA’s SOFIA jetliner recently observed Pluto during an occultation event, prior to New Horizons’ historic flyby. Image Credit: NASA
In a year brimming with ongoing discoveries about distant, unknown worlds, including the Solar System’s planets and a comet, 2015 seems to be shaping up to be the “Year of Pluto.” Less than two weeks before the New Horizons spacecraft will make a historic flyby of the dwarf planet and its moons, on June 29 (June 30 in New Zealand) NASA’s SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) jetliner made observations of Pluto as it briefly passed between a star and the Earth. This event, known as an “occultation,” “back lit” the dwarf planet, making astronomical observations easier. In addition, data collected during these observations will further aid the New Horizons team, as their spacecraft approaches closer and closer to Pluto and its moons by the day.
Continue reading Just Days Before Historic New Horizons Flyby, SOFIA Makes Observations of Pluto
New color images of Pluto sent back by New Horizons showing two different “faces” or hemispheres of the dwarf planet and its largest moon Charon. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
First there were the unusual bright spots on Ceres, which are still awaiting an explanation, and now as New Horizons races toward its flyby encounter with Pluto on July 14, another mystery has emerged: four intriguing large dark spots more or less along Pluto’s equator which seem to be roughly the same size and evenly spaced. The spots are mentioned as part of an update today from NASA about the “two different faces of Pluto” that scientists are now starting to see in more detail.
Continue reading New Color Images Show ‘Two Faces’ of Pluto and Odd Dark Spots Along Equator
These images show the difference between two sets of 48 combined 10-second exposures with New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera, taken at 8:40 UTC and 10:25 UTC on June 26, 2015, from a range of 21.5 million kilometers (approximately 13 million miles) to Pluto. The known small moons, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx, are visible as adjacent bright and dark pairs of dots, due to their motion in the 105 minutes between the two image sets. Credits: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI
We are now inside two weeks until New Horizons’ date with Pluto on July 14, a day which will surely go down in history and close out humanity’s initial reconnaissance of every major world across the solar system. But in order to get there the spacecraft must avoid hitting anything that might be in the way, such as rings, new moons not seen before, or tiny dust particles. The spacecraft is moving so fast (30,000 mph) that even the tiniest sand grain sized dust particles could be lethal, causing severe damage to the spacecraft and its suite of science instruments and cameras.
For seven weeks now the mission team has been conducting detailed searches for such hazards, using the piano-sized spacecraft’s powerful Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) telescopic camera, and today NASA gave New Horizons the final GO to proceed with it original “best” flight path through the Pluto system, one which will allow the mission to conduct all of its originally planned science objectives.
Continue reading New Horizons Is GO for Best Flight Path to Pluto, Mission Team Determines No Hazards Ahead