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).

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

'Nice Round Number': 15 Years Since STS-100 Shook Hands at the Space Station (Part 1)

15 years ago, this month, Canadarm2 was installed at the International Space Station (ISS). Shuttle mission STS-100 marked the first occasion that as many as four discrete nations had been represented on a single flight and saw Chris Hadfield become Canada's first spacewalker. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

15 years ago, this month, Canadarm2 was installed at the International Space Station (ISS). Shuttle mission STS-100 marked the first occasion that as many as four discrete nations had been represented on a single flight and saw Chris Hadfield become Canada’s first spacewalker. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Within the last month, NASA’s two Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) partners have delivered their respective cargo ships to the International Space Station (ISS), marking the first occasion that both have been represented simultaneously aboard the orbital outpost. Orbital ATK successfully berthed its OA-6 Cygnus vehicle on 26 March, whilst SpaceX returned to the station after almost a year-long hiatus with last weekend’s spectacular voyage of the CRS-8 Dragon. Both vehicles are now firmly attached to the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS), with Cygnus at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) interface of the Unity node and Dragon at the nadir port of the Harmony node. This has served to boost the ISS population of piloted and unpiloted visiting vehicles to as many as six for the first time in its history.

A key player in enabling the berthing of both Cygnus and Dragon, as well as Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), and supporting myriad robotic operations over the years has been Canada’s contribution to the space station program: the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2. Launched 15 years ago, in April 2001, the “Big Arm” is an evolution of the Space Shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS). Between its first voyage on Columbia’s STS-2 mission in November 1981 and the final swansong of the shuttle program on STS-135 in July 2011, the six-degrees-of-freedom RMS provided the means and the muscle to retrieve and repair numerous Earth-circling spacecraft—including Solar Max, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and several commercial communications satellites—and deploy a variety of others, such as the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO), the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), and the European Retrievable Carrier (EURECA). And for the first couple of years of ISS assembly, the RMS played a central and pivotal role.

Then came Canadarm2.

Continue reading ‘Nice Round Number’: 15 Years Since STS-100 Shook Hands at the Space Station (Part 1)

Space Station Ready for BEAM Installation, ULA and Bigelow Announce Future Plans

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be berthed to the Tranquility Node of the International Space Station for a two-year demonstration. It will be the first private space habitat of its kind. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be berthed to the Tranquility Node of the International Space Station for a two-year demonstration. It will be the first private space habitat of its kind. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Little more than a week since its rousing launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., aboard SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship—and just six days since it reached its orbital home for the next two years—the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is slated to be physically installed onto the Tranquility node at the International Space Station (ISS) on Saturday morning. The 3,000-pound (1,360-kg) BEAM was developed by Las Vegas, Nev.-based Bigelow Aerospace, under contract to NASA, and represents the first human-rated expandable structure ever used in space. Its installation over the weekend will set the stage for several weeks of leak checks and other work, ahead of BEAM’s expansion to its full, torus-shaped configuration in late May. Also this week, Bigelow and United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced their partnership over B330 expandable habitat technology for proposed science and industrial missions, together with space tourism and perhaps eventually human voyages to the Moon and Mars.

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Space Icon Jim Lovell Calls For Return to Moon at Smithsonian Ceremony

Retired astronaut Navy Capt. James A. Lovell Jr., 88, received the National Air and Space Museum's Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo Credit U.S. Navy.

Retired astronaut Navy Capt. James A. Lovell Jr., 88, received the National Air and Space Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo Credit U.S. Navy.

Navy Capt. James A. Lovell Jr. (ret), the first astronaut to fly two trips to the Moon while also leading the Apollo 13 crew’s successful fight for survival, is calling for a return to the Moon as the key element in U.S. preparations for human missions to Mars.

In an exclusive interview with AmericaSpace at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, where he was awarded the Museum’s Lifetime Achievement award Apr. 5, Lovell said, “My real wish is that we develop the technology to go back to the Moon to really study and get comfortable in living on and exploring the Moon, to use THAT technology as the basic infrastructure we will use on the initial human flights to the surface of Mars.”

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'To Come to California': 35 Years Since STS-1 Inaugurated the Space Shuttle Program (Part 2)

After its Thermal Protection System (TPS) successfully bore the brunt of the fiery return to Earth, Columbia performed an unpowered, "deadstick" landing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on 14 April 1981. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

After its Thermal Protection System (TPS) successfully bore the brunt of the fiery return to Earth, Columbia performed an unpowered, “deadstick” landing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on 14 April 1981. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Thirty-five years have now passed since the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Program. On the morning of 12 April 1981, orbiter Columbia rocketed away from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), kicking off a new era which would see more humans delivered into the heavens than at any other point in history. As described in yesterday’s AmericaSpace article, the two days of STS-1—crewed by Commander John Young and Pilot Bob Crippen—was one of the most hazardous spaceflights of all time, marking the first occasion on which a brand-new spacecraft had undertaken its very first mission with humans aboard. There existed a very real risk that Young and Crippen might lose their lives, not only during launch and ascent, but also during Columbia’s hypersonic re-entry and desert landing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. That landing took place on 14 April 1981.

Continue reading ‘To Come to California’: 35 Years Since STS-1 Inaugurated the Space Shuttle Program (Part 2)

Cassini Data May Help Locate 'Planet Nine' and Reveals Methane Fog on Titan

Artist's conception of the possible "Planet Nine," orbiting much farther from the Sun than even Pluto. Image Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

Artist’s conception of the possible Planet Nine, orbiting much farther from the Sun than even Pluto. The Cassini spacecraft may be able to help find it. Image Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

The Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn for many years now, studying the massive planet and its moons in unprecedented detail. Now, Cassini might be able to help shed light on another Solar System mystery: the possible existence of a ninth planet in the outer Solar System far past Pluto, or “Planet Nine” as it has been dubbed. There is also a new report, based on old data, that the Huygens lander observed methane ground fog as it descended to the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005.

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'You Don't Go Fly When You Got Debts': 35 Years Since STS-1 Inaugurated the Space Shuttle Program (Part 1)

STS-1's launch in April 1981, some 35 years ago this month, began a new era of spaceflight. Photo Credit: NASA

STS-1’s launch in April 1981, some 35 years ago this month, began a new era of spaceflight. Photo Credit: NASA

Thirty-five years ago, on 12 April 1981, the first winged orbital space vehicle carrying human pilots was launched from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Aboard Columbia for STS-1—the long-awaited maiden voyage of the shuttle era—were Commander John Young and Pilot Bob Crippen, tasked with spending two days evaluating the performance of the most complex manned spacecraft in history. Since it was formally approved for development, almost a decade earlier, the reusable shuttle had been directed to a mandate of flying routinely, transporting satellites, laboratories, and people into low-Earth orbit, but before it could be declared “operational” it would have to perform four Orbital Flight Test (OFT) missions, of which STS-1 was the first.

Continue reading ‘You Don’t Go Fly When You Got Debts’: 35 Years Since STS-1 Inaugurated the Space Shuttle Program (Part 1)