ULA Atlas-V and Delta-IV Poised to Launch Air Force GPS and WGS Satellites July 15 and 22

A $245 million Boeing GPS  2F spacecraft under final test before shipment to Cape Canaveral. Photo Credit: Boeing

A $245-million Boeing GPS 2F spacecraft under final test before shipment to Cape Canaveral. Photo Credit: Boeing

Two U.S. military space missions, one launched by an Atlas V and the other by a Delta IV, are set to roar off Cape Canaveral’s launch pads within seven days of each other, initiating six months of intense and diverse military space launch activity.

The planned July 15 launch from Cape Canaveral of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 rocket carrying the U.S. Air Force GPS 2F-10 navigation satellite will kick off the busy pace.  It will also hasten the phaseout of the Boeing 2F line toward Lockheed Martin’s GPS III operations in 2017.

Continue reading ULA Atlas-V and Delta-IV Poised to Launch Air Force GPS and WGS Satellites July 15 and 22

One Day to Pluto: Looking Back at Humanity's First-Time Successful Encounters With the Sun's Planets

Tomorrow's historic flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto and its binary companion, Charon, will mark the completion of humanity's first-time exploration of each of the Solar System's nine traditional planets. Photo Credit: NASA

Tomorrow’s historic flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto and its binary companion, Charon, will mark the completion of humanity’s first-time exploration of each of the Solar System’s nine traditional planets. Photo Credit: NASA

Tomorrow, the United States will become the first nation to have conducted a close-range reconnaissance of all nine “traditional” planets in the Solar System, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sweeps silently past the dwarf world Pluto, its binary companion Charon, and a system of four tiny moons—Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx—before continuing toward a possible rendezvous with at least one Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), as early as 2018-2019. It is a matter of great coincidence that New Horizons’ visit to Pluto falls on the very day of the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Mariner 4 mission, which completed the first successful flyby of Mars, back on 14 July 1965. Over the past five decades, a series of U.S. spacecraft have hurtled past Mercury (Mariner 10), Venus (Mariner 2), Mars (Mariner 4), Jupiter (Pioneer 10), Saturn (Pioneer 11), and Uranus and Neptune (Voyager 2), offering humanity its first detailed insight into the nature of these strange worlds. Tomorrow’s visitation of Pluto by New Horizons will bring this first-time inspection of each of the classical planets full-circle.

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The Women Behind the New Horizons Mission and New Pluto Map

The women of the New Horizons team, photographed at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory on July 11, 2015, just three days before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto. Kneeling from left to right: Amy Shira Teitel, Cindy Conrad, Sarah Hamilton, Allisa Earle, Leslie Young, Melissa Jones, Katie Bechtold, Becca Sepan, Kelsi Singer, Amanda Zangari, Coralie Jackman, Helen Hart. Standing, from left to right: Fran Bagenal, Ann Harch, Jillian Redfern, Tiffany Finley, Heather Elliot, Nicole Martin, Yanping Guo, Cathy Olkin, Valerie Mallder, Rayna Tedford, Silvia Protopapa, Martha Kusterer, Kim Ennico, Ann Verbiscer, Bonnie Buratti, Sarah Bucior, Veronica Bray, Emma Birath, Carly Howett, Alice Bowman. Not pictured: Priya Dharmavaram, Sarah Flanigan, Debi Rose, Sheila Zurvalec, Adriana Ocampo, Jo-Anne Kierzkowski. Photo Credit: Michael Soluri

The women of the New Horizons team, photographed at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory on July 11, 2015, just three days before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto. Kneeling from left to right: Amy Shira Teitel, Cindy Conrad, Sarah Hamilton, Allisa Earle, Leslie Young, Melissa Jones, Katie Bechtold, Becca Sepan, Kelsi Singer, Amanda Zangari, Coralie Jackman, Helen Hart. Standing, from left to right: Fran Bagenal, Ann Harch, Jillian Redfern, Tiffany Finley, Heather Elliot, Nicole Martin, Yanping Guo, Cathy Olkin, Valerie Mallder, Rayna Tedford, Silvia Protopapa, Martha Kusterer, Kim Ennico, Ann Verbiscer, Bonnie Buratti, Sarah Bucior, Veronica Bray, Emma Birath, Carly Howett, Alice Bowman. Not pictured: Priya Dharmavaram, Sarah Flanigan, Debi Rose, Sheila Zurvalec, Adriana Ocampo, Jo-Anne Kierzkowski. Photo Credit: Michael Soluri

With only a couple of days left before New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto, the mission website has posted an excellent overview of the powerful role women are playing in the mission, helping to break gender stereotypes.

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Partners in Space: 40 Years Since the Remarkable Voyage of Apollo-Soyuz (Part 2)

Apollo 18, with its docking module (left) approaches Soyuz 19 for the first joint U.S.-Russian manned space exercise in July 1975. Image Credit: NASA

Apollo 18, with its docking module (left), approaches Soyuz 19 for the first joint U.S.-Russian manned space exercise in July 1975. Image Credit: NASA

For almost two decades, the United States and Russia have collaborated in the grandest scientific, engineering, and human endeavor ever undertaken in human history: the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). Since the days of Shuttle-Mir, these two former superpowers—which once viewed each other with mistrust through the lens of differing political ideologies—have forged an enduring partnership. It has not been an easy journey and down-to-Earth politics has often strained relations, but it seems likely to continue. Yet the seeds of this partnership were first sown way before Shuttle-Mir and the ISS … back in the early 1970s, when America and the then-Soviet Union emerged for the briefest of times from the “deep cold” of the Cold War and staged a manned space mission together. It was known as the “Apollo-Soyuz Test Project” (ASTP) and it took place exactly 40 years ago, this month.

Continue reading Partners in Space: 40 Years Since the Remarkable Voyage of Apollo-Soyuz (Part 2)

Two Days to Pluto: Guiding New Horizons to the Solar System's Ragged Edge (Part 2)

Whether a dwarf planet, plutoid, trans-Neptunian object or Kuiper Belt object, Pluto has emerged from the gloom to reveal her secrets. Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

Whether a dwarf planet, plutoid, trans-Neptunian object or Kuiper Belt object, Pluto has emerged from the gloom to reveal her secrets. Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

We’re nearly there.

Eighty-five years after it was first identified by U.S. astronomer Clyde Tombaugh and subsequently named by English schoolgirl Venetia Burney, 39 years since its surface was first spectroscopically imaged, 37 years since its large binary companion, Charon, was discovered, almost a full decade since humanity despatched its first robotic visitor, and since it was ignominiously demoted in status, the dwarf world Pluto is almost ready to surrender some of her closely guarded secrets from the ragged edge of the Solar System. In recent weeks, she has steadily emerged from the gloom, with images from the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and Ralph telescope aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft steadily resolving a curious reddish-brown world, of hearts and whales, bright and dark regions, and it is clear that whatever it finds will generate many more questions than answers and continue to whet scientists’ appetites long into the future. Earlier this week, Dr. Bobby Williams— Executive Vice President of Space Navigation and Flight Dynamics at KinetX Aerospace, the primary navigation team for the mission—took time to explain to AmericaSpace the key challenges faced as New Horizons was guided across the Solar System to the farthest target ever reached by a human-made machine.

Continue reading Two Days to Pluto: Guiding New Horizons to the Solar System’s Ragged Edge (Part 2)

Two Days Prior to Closest Approach New Horizons Images Pluto's Charon-Facing Hemisphere for the Last Time

Pluto's Charon-facing hemisphere, as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft for the last time on july 11, from a distance of 4 million km away. The image clearly shows newly-resolved linear features above the equatorial region that intersect, suggestive of polygonal shapes. Image Credit/Caption:  NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Pluto’s Charon-facing hemisphere, as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft for the last time on july 11, from a distance of 4 million km away. The image clearly shows newly-resolved linear features above the equatorial region that intersect, suggestive of polygonal shapes. Image Credit/Caption: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

With just two days remaining before New Horizons zips through the Pluto system at a breakneck speed of 49,600 kilometers per hour, the spacecraft is now entering the encounter phase of its mission which will culminate with its close fly by of the dwarf planet from a distance of approximately 13,000 km away on the evening hours of July 14. While preparing for this historic event and as part of its daily observations of the distant dwarf planet, New Horizons took one last look at the hemisphere of Pluto that always faces its largest moon Charon, presenting scientists with their final best-ever views of the side of the planet that will be opposite to the one the spacecraft will be seeing during the day of closest approach.

Continue reading Two Days Prior to Closest Approach New Horizons Images Pluto’s Charon-Facing Hemisphere for the Last Time

Partners in Space: 40 Years Since the Remarkable Voyage of Apollo-Soyuz (Part 1)

Tom Stafford (right) shakes hands with his counterpart Alexei Leonov in the docking module tunnel on 17 July 1975. This grainy image represents the first serious effort at co-operation between the United States and Russia in human space exploration. Photo Credit: NASA

Tom Stafford (right) shakes hands with his counterpart Alexei Leonov in the docking module tunnel on 17 July 1975. This grainy image represents the first serious effort at co-operation between the United States and Russia in human space exploration. Photo Credit: NASA

For almost two decades, the United States and Russia have collaborated in the grandest scientific, engineering, and human endeavor ever undertaken in human history: the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). Since the days of the shuttle-Mir program, these two former superpowers—which once viewed each other with mistrust through the lens of differing political ideologies—have forged an enduring partnership. It has not been an easy journey and down-to-Earth politics has often strained relations, but it seems likely to continue. Yet the seeds of this partnership were first sown way before shuttle-Mir and the ISS, back in the early 1970s, when America and the then-Soviet Union emerged for the briefest of times from the “deep cold” of the Cold War and staged a manned space mission together, 40 years ago, this month. It was known as the “Apollo-Soyuz Test Project” (ASTP).

Continue reading Partners in Space: 40 Years Since the Remarkable Voyage of Apollo-Soyuz (Part 1)

Three Days to Pluto: Guiding New Horizons to the Solar System's Ragged Edge (Part 1)

Artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft during its planned encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon. Image Credit: NASA

Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft during its planned encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon. Image Credit: NASA

After 9.5 years, 114 months, more than 490 weeks, and around 3,500 days since launch, NASA’s New Horizons mission is now into double-figure-hours as it initiates the final countdown toward a historic rendezvous on Tuesday, 14 July, with the dwarf world Pluto, its binary companion Charon, and a system of four tiny moons: Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx. Over the span of just shy of a full decade, New Horizons’ relatively calm and untroubled voyage to the outermost reaches of the Solar System has been juxtaposed by decidedly less calm and more troubled waters back on Earth, as our species has faced a range of challenges, from terrorism and warfare to natural disasters and economic catastrophe. In fact, New Horizons itself—or, at least, its destination—has not been immune to controversy, for Pluto was demoted in August 2006 from its lofty status as the last of the nine “traditional” planets in the Solar System to an object variously described as a dwarf, a trans-Neptunian object, a plutoid, and the largest-known body in the Kuiper Belt. Over the coming days, AmericaSpace’s New Horizons Tracker and a series of articles by Mike Killian, Leonidas Papadopoulos, and myself will cover the exploration of Pluto to date and the unfolding developments as New Horizons seeks to make this unknown world known.

Continue reading Three Days to Pluto: Guiding New Horizons to the Solar System’s Ragged Edge (Part 1)

New Images and Scheduled Observations of Pluto as New Horizons Closes In

Pluto's fascinating terrain and various geologic features are revealed in detail in this latest black-and-white image from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. The image was taken with the onboard Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI on July 9, while New Horizons was approximately 5.4 million km away from the dwarf planet. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Pluto’s fascinating terrain and various geologic features are revealed in detail in this latest black-and-white image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. The image was taken with the onboard Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI on July 9, while New Horizons was approximately 5.4 million km away from the dwarf planet. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

With NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft being just over 80 hours away from its historic rendezvous with Pluto, the intrepid robotic explorer has started to return its first detailed views of the dwarf planet’s fascinating geology. Meanwhile, a host of other planetary probes and space observatories that are situated across the Solar System will be weighing in the ongoing study of the distant world in the following weeks and months as well, providing important long-range observations that will complement the treasure trove of data that New Horizons will be beaming back during its brief close-up visit of the Pluto system.

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Cassidy Appointed Next Chief of Astronaut Office, Others Move to Management, As NASA Makes Commercial Crew Decisions

Chris Cassidy is helped from Soyuz TMA-08M by a group of supportive hands, including Chief Astronaut Bob Behnken (left) in September 2013. Behnken has now handed the reins of the Astronaut Office to Cassidy as the next chief. Photo Credit: NASA

Chris Cassidy is helped from Soyuz TMA-08M by a group of supportive hands, including Chief Astronaut Bob Behnken (left) in September 2013. Behnken has now handed the reins of the Astronaut Office to Cassidy as the next chief. Photo Credit: NASA

Less than two years since returning from his most recent mission, and after a year of managerial positions of increasing responsibility, space shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) veteran Chris Cassidy has been appointed Chief of the Astronaut Office. Selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in May 2004, Cassidy performed three spacewalks during shuttle mission STS-127 in July 2009 and a further three spacewalks during Expedition 35/36 in March-September 2013. He succeeds the outgoing chief, veteran astronaut Bob Behnken, who has led the office since August 2012. The departure of Behnken and his previous deputy, Eric Boe, both in a matter of just a handful of months, has long raised the interesting possibility that they may be contenders for positions aboard the opening flights of Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon V-2 piloted vehicles, both of which are expected to occur in the early-to-mid-2017 timeframe. This appeared to be confirmed yesterday (Thursday), when NASA announced the names of Behnken and Boe, together with fellow astronauts Sunita Williams and Doug Hurley, to work alongside Boeing and SpaceX for the first Commercial Crew missions, due to occur no sooner than mid-2017. At the same time, three veteran shuttle and ISS flyers have moved from active flight status into non-flying management roles within the Astronaut Office.

Continue reading Cassidy Appointed Next Chief of Astronaut Office, Others Move to Management, As NASA Makes Commercial Crew Decisions