Geysers on Europa? Hubble Space Telescope Finds More Evidence for Water Vapor Plumes

Composite image showing the possible water vapor plumes near the south pole of Europa, at about the 7 o'clock position. The image of Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions, is superimposed on the Hubble data. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Composite image showing the possible water vapor plumes near the south pole of Europa, at about the 7 o’clock position. The image of Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions, is superimposed on the Hubble data. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Intriguing new findings about Jupiter’s moon Europa were announced today by NASA, and while they don’t involve any direct evidence for life, they do provide more information on how scientists could better search for such evidence, without having to drill through the icy crust to the ocean below. The new observations, by the Hubble Space Telescope, have added to the evidence for active water vapor plumes on Europa – an exciting possibility in itself, since they would possibly originate from the subsurface ocean, similar to the plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And just like the Cassini spacecraft has already done at Enceladus, those plumes, geysers really, could be sampled directly by a future spacecraft such as Europa Clipper.

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Record-Breaker for Women Astronauts: 20 Years Since STS-79 (Part 2)

For the first time on STS-79, a shuttle crew saw Mir in its complete configuration, with six research and habitation modules. It had been Shannon Lucid's home for six months and would be John Blaha's home for the next four. Photo Credit: NASA

For the first time on STS-79, a shuttle crew saw Mir in its complete configuration, with six research and habitation modules. It had been Shannon Lucid’s home for six months and would be John Blaha’s home for the next four. Photo Credit: NASA

A glass half-full, or half-empty, was Bill Readdy’s perspective on the accomplishment of his fellow astronaut Shannon Lucid, who unexpectedly secured the record for the longest single mission ever undertaken by a woman and the most experienced U.S. spacefarer, 20 years ago, this month. In September 1996, Readdy commanded Shuttle Atlantis on STS-79, the fourth rendezvous and docking mission to Russia’s Mir space station. As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, Readdy and his crewmates—Pilot Terry Wilcutt and Mission Specialists Jay Apt, Tom Akers, and Carl Walz—brought Lucid back to Earth after six months in orbit and dropped off another astronaut, John Blaha, to press ahead with the next stage of a continuous U.S. presence aboard Mir, which would not end until mid-1998.

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Orion, SLS Development Continues to Take Shape for Inaugural Late 2018 Launch

An SLS Block 1 launch vehicle hoists an Orion spacecraft from KSC's Pad 39B, with the VAB in the distance. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC

An SLS Block 1 launch vehicle hoists an Orion spacecraft from KSC’s Pad 39B, with the VAB in the distance. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC

It seems as if we’re galloping toward the end of 2016, and we’re getting closer by the day to the “dawn” of a new U.S. launch vehicle and human-rated spacecraft. In a little over two years, NASA’s next “giant leap”—Exploration Mission 1 (EM1)—is aimed for a launch from Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) Pad 39B. While two years may seem like a long time, much must take place before the Space Launch System (SLS) launch vehicle and its Orion crew capsule (integrated with a European Space Agency-built service module) are ready to leave Earth’s orbit for a flight 40,000 miles beyond the Moon and back.

On the SLS front, NASA continues to prepare KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for the next-generation launch vehicle, while the massive core stage comes together at the space agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, La. Meanwhile, the Orion crew capsule to be used for EM-1 received its essential heat shield. NASA is also preparing to test the ESA-built service module, and recovery processes after splashdown are also being practiced at Houston’s Johnson Space Center.

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Changing the Guard: 20 Years Since STS-79 (Part 1)

World record holder Lucid watches the growth of plants in a Russian greenhouse aboard Mir. This photograph was taken in September 1996, shortly after the crew of STS-79 - including Lucid's replacement, John Blaha - arrived to bring her home. Photo Credit: NASA

World record holder Shannon Lucid watches the growth of plants in a Russian greenhouse aboard Mir. This photograph was taken in September 1996, shortly after the crew of STS-79, including Lucid’s replacement, John Blaha, arrived to bring her home. Photo Credit: NASA

Twenty years ago, this month, an American national record-breaker circled high above Earth, aboard Russia’s Mir space station. In July 1996, Shannon Lucid had surpassed Norm Thagard to become the most flight-experienced U.S. spacefarer and by early September she had eclipsed Russian cosmonaut Yelena Kondakova to become the most seasoned female spacefarer of all time. Not for another decade would her record for womankind be beaten. And in September 1996, after a stupendous 188 days in orbit on a single mission—and 223 days across the entirety of her five-flight astronaut career—Lucid returned to Earth aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis. Yet her return home was far from the “end,” but rather the beginning of more than two years of continuous U.S. presence aboard the station, for riding uphill with Atlantis’ STS-79 astronauts was another long-duration Mir resident, Lucid’s old friend and former crewmate John Blaha.

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Perspectives After the Fire: Long Road Ahead for SpaceX and NASA's Commercial Crew Program

Hazmat crews surround SpaceX Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, days after the company suffered a catastrophic explosion of their Falcon-9 booster and losing the customer's payload which was already atop the rocket for its flight to orbit. Photo Credit: Michael Galindo / AmericaSpace

Hazmat crews surround SpaceX Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, days after the company suffered a catastrophic explosion of their Falcon-9 booster and losing the customer’s payload which was already atop the rocket for its flight to orbit. Photo Credit: Michael Galindo / AmericaSpace

There is no way to dilute the events of Sept. 1, 2016, into something less than catastrophic, and not just for SpaceX but for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program itself. Because after Thursday, Sept. 1, NASA’s bet on Commercial Crew in general, and in SpaceX in particular, was challenged not just programmatically but technically. What remains to be seen is whether or not, and how fast, the Commercial Crew program (CPP) and SpaceX recover, something that will take not days or weeks, but months to determine.

Regardless of the explosion or its cause on 9/1 (which is not yet known as of this publishing 9/23), that day would still have been a tough news day for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and by extension SpaceX.

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'To Make Sure We Didn't Make the News': 25 Years Since STS-48 (Part 2)

Originally scheduled to be the first shuttle mission to land at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the hours of darkness, STS-48 was ultimately diverted to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Originally scheduled to be the first shuttle mission to land at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the hours of darkness, STS-48 was ultimately diverted to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Late in September 2011, the skies above the Pacific Ocean were illuminated by an astonishing—though not unexpected—fire show. NASA’s 13,000-pound (5,900-kg) Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), launched this week in September 1991, returned to Earth in a blaze of glowing debris, with the remnants splashing down in a remote stretch of the Pacific. Originally anticipated to operate for just two years, the UARS mission was extended several times and even when budget cuts forced it to be decommissioned in June 2005 no less than six of its nine instruments were still fully functional. Its eventual descent to Earth brought a rather high-profile closure to a mission which had proven instrumental in changing our perception of the Home Planet.

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'Gentlemen's Hours': 25 Years Since STS-48 (Part 1)

The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) is readied for deployment by Discovery's Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, early in the STS-48 mission. Photo Credit: NASA

The Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) is readied for deployment by Discovery’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, early in the STS-48 mission. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Late in September 2011, the skies above the Pacific Ocean were illuminated by an astonishing, though not unexpected, fire show. NASA’s 13,000-pound (5,900-kg) Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS)—launched 25 years ago, this week, in September 1991—returned to Earth in a blaze of glowing debris, with the remnants splashing down in a remote stretch of the Pacific.

Originally anticipated to operate for just two years, the UARS mission was extended several times, and even when budget cuts forced it to be decommissioned in June 2005 no less than six of its nine instruments were still fully functional. Its orbit was slightly lowered by flight controllers in December 2005, in anticipation of an eventual destructive re-entry, and in October 2010 the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) was obliged to perform a debris avoidance maneuver in response to a conjunction with the aging satellite. Its eventual descent to Earth on 24 September 2011 brought a rather high-profile closure to a mission which had proven instrumental in changing our perception of the Home Planet.

Continue reading ‘Gentlemen’s Hours’: 25 Years Since STS-48 (Part 1)

Enigmatic Pluto Emits X-Rays and 'Spray-Paints' Its Largest Moon, New Research Shows

For the first time, x-rays have been detected around Pluto, as seen by Chandra (inset image). Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Chandra X-Ray Center

For the first time, x-rays have been detected around Pluto, as seen by Chandra (inset image). Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Chandra X-Ray Center

It has been 14 months since the New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto and its moons, but data still continues to come in, and new discoveries are still being made. The dwarf planet has surprised scientists by its geological activity, for the most part unexpected for such a small, cold body. Now two new results are adding to the mystery of Pluto: the detection of x-rays emanating from the surface and new evidence that Pluto “spray-paints” the north pole of its largest moon Charon a rusty red color.

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Commercial Earth-Watcher Ready for Friday Morning Launch

DigitalGlobe's WorldView-4 satellite is readied for encapsulation in the Atlas V payload fairing on 8 September 2016. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-4 satellite is readied for encapsulation in the Atlas V payload fairing on 8 September 2016. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

Twenty-five months after the WorldView-3 commercial Earth-imaging satellite was launched into orbit, its near-twin is set to rocket out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., no sooner than Friday, 16 September, atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 rocket. Built by Lockheed Martin and described as “a big telescope with a little satellite wrapped around it,” WorldView-4 has followed a long and convoluted journey from factory floor to launch pad. Originally known as “GeoEye-2,” both the satellite and its parent company came under the ownership of Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe in early 2013.

However, for a time it seemed unclear if GeoEye-2—subsequently renamed WorldView-4—would ever launch. Then, in the summer of 2014, following a U.S. Department of Commerce decision to allow DigitalGlobe to commercially sell Earth imagery at far higher resolutions than previously allowable under U.S. law, the need for WorldView-4 became more acute. In tandem with WorldView-3, launched in August 2014, the new satellite will provide a panchromatic resolution of 12.2 inches (31 cm) and a multispectral resolution of 4 feet (1.2 meters). And since early 2015, this has been increased to just 10 inches (25 cm) for panchromatic and 3.3 feet (1 meter) for multispectral, offering resolutions previously unobtainable outside the military.

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Curiosity Rover Examines Spectacular Layered Buttes, Closes In on Mount Sharp

Curiosity near Murray Buttes, on first approach. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/James Sorenson

Curiosity near Murray Buttes, on first approach. Panoramic image processing by James Sorenson. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/James Sorenson

Mars has often been compared to deserts on Earth, and for good reason: It is pretty much a barren landscape with a lot of sand and rocks everywhere. Sometimes the similarities can be quite striking, and the terrain in Gale crater where the Curiosity rover is roaming around is a good example. The rover is currently in a region of stunning scenery, consisting of buttes and mesas that are very reminiscent of ones on Earth. This area could easily be mistaken for the American southwest if it weren’t for the dusty, pinkish sky and complete lack of vegetation. Curiosity is now getting a close-up look at these formations, which are not only beautiful but record a long and fascinating geological history.

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