Tooled Up for a Telescope: 20 Years Since the Second Hubble Servicing Mission (Part 1)

Barely illuminated by sunlight, Joe Tanner is pictured during EVA-4 on STS-82. Photo Credit: NASA

Barely illuminated by sunlight, Joe Tanner is pictured during EVA-4 on STS-82. Photo Credit: NASA

Twenty years have now passed since a seven-man rocketed into the night to begin the second servicing mission to the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Coming on the heels of the ambitious STS-61 shuttle flight in December 1993—during which astronauts had corrected the telescope’s aberrated vision with corrective optics—STS-82 in February 1997 would transform Hubble yet again from a repaired observatory to a brand-new one, fit for the 21st century. “I would think the only other instrument that would rival it in historical value,” said STS-82 Mission Specialist Steve Hawley, one of only seven humans to have visited Hubble twice in orbit, “would be Galileo’s original telescope.”

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A Martian Paradox: Curiosity Rover Findings Raise New Questions About Water on Ancient Mars

View from Curiosity of the Yellowknife Bay rock formation. Drilled samples here and elsewhere provided evidence that this region used to be at the bottom of a lake, but also that there are little or no carbonate mineral deposits, which should have been produced if the carbon dioxide atmosphere was thicker and warmer billions of years ago. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The subject of water on Mars is one of the most highly debated in planetary science; various missions have provided ample evidence that the planet used to be a lot wetter than it is now, with rivers, lakes and maybe even oceans. Most scientists now generally agree on this, but as to how much water there was, how long it lasted and how warm the environment was, is another question. There have been apparent conflicting lines of evidence, and now findings from the Curiosity rover have only added to the mystery. Curiosity has revealed a paradox of sorts – it has found abundant evidence for ancient lakes in now-dry Gale crater, but at the same time has not found evidence for a previous thicker atmosphere with more carbon dioxide, which normally would be needed for water to remain liquid on the surface. These two lines of evidence seem to contradict each other, so how to resolve this puzzle?

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NASA Outlines Science Heading to Space Station Aboard CRS-10 Dragon

CRS-10 will be the 10th dedicated Dragon to launch to the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: NASA

NASA personnel, together with investigators and student scientists, gathered for a media teleconference earlier today (Wednesday, 8 February), to discuss the research payloads heading uphill aboard SpaceX’s next Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Dragon mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Launch of the CRS-10 mission—the tenth dedicated Dragon cargo flight since October 2012—is currently targeted to fly no earlier than Saturday, 18 February, atop SpaceX’s Upgraded Falcon 9 booster, embarking on a month-long voyage to the orbiting outpost. All told, CRS-10 will transport 5,500 pounds (2,500 kg) of hardware and supplies uphill and will return approximately 5,000 pounds (2,270 kg) back to Earth. Significantly, it will become the first mission to launch from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida since the end of the Space Shuttle era in July 2011.

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NASA's OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft to Search for Trojan Asteroids Near Earth

Artist’s depiction of OSIRIS-REx in orbit around Bennu. Currently, the spacecraft is searching for other Trojan asteroids near Earth. Image Credit: NASA

Asteroids are some of the most ancient objects in the Solar System, relics left over from the time when the planets first started forming and evolving. For this reason, scientists are very interested in them, since they can provide clues as to how this process occurred. Most asteroids orbit the Sun in a broad belt between Mars and Jupiter, but they can be found elsewhere in the Solar System as well. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is now en route to one of these asteroids, called Bennu, which it will study and then bring a sample back to Earth. While on the way there, however, OSIRIS-REx will also be searching for other asteroids, called Trojans. These have regular orbits which place them either just before or just behind a planet, including Earth. The spacecraft will be on the lookout for some of these Trojans near Earth this month as it travels toward Bennu.

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'Lock the Doors': Remembering Columbia's Final Mission (Part 2)

As evidenced by the clock on the main screen at 14:15:05 GMT (9:15:05 am EST), this view of a tense Mission Control was acquired a quarter of an hour after the first sign of trouble...and a minute ahead of Columbia's expected landing. By now, everyone was aware that all hope was gone and contingency procedures were in effect. Photo Credit: NASA

As evidenced by the clock on the main screen at 14:15:05 GMT (9:15:05 am EST), this view of a tense Mission Control was acquired a quarter of an hour after the first sign of trouble…and a minute ahead of Columbia’s expected landing. By now, everyone was aware that all hope was gone and contingency procedures were in effect. Photo Credit: NASA

In the second half of January 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia flew her 28th and final mission into orbit. For 16 days, her seven-strong crew supported more than 80 scientific experiments in the Spacehab Research Double Module and aboard a pallet at the rear of the payload bay. By now, the shuttle was perceived to be a dangerous, though well-understood, vehicle; this was the 87th post-Challenger flight and the four-strong fleet of orbiters had a history of robustness, having endured pad aborts, engine problems during ascent and severe thermal-protection system damage during re-entry. When a briefcase-sized chunk of insulating foam was spotted on launch video falling from the External Tank at T+82 seconds and hitting Columbia’s left wing—at precisely the spot where Reinforced Carbon Carbon (RCC) panels would later shield the ship against the most extreme re-entry temperatures—concern was elevated for a time, but ultimately dismissed.

It was a dismissal that would haunt NASA for years after the event; a dismissal as ill-judged and as ill-conceived as declaring the Titanic to be unsinkable.

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'So Thin and Fragile': Remembering Columbia's Final Mission (Part 1)

The dual-shift nature of STS-107 required the inclusion of sleep stations in Columbia's middeck. In this image, Red Team members Laurel Clark, Rick Husband and Kalpana Chawla peek out of their bunks. Photo Credit: NASA

The dual-shift nature of STS-107 required the inclusion of sleep stations in Columbia’s middeck. In this image, Red Team members Laurel Clark, Rick Husband and Kalpana Chawla peek out of their bunks. Photo Credit: NASA

When Columbia’s payload bay doors opened at around midday EST on 16 January 2003—a few hours after NASA’s oldest Space Shuttle had reached orbit for the 28th time—they exposed a cargo unlike anything which had flown into space for almost five years. Most shuttle missions in the interim had been exclusively dedicated to the construction of the International Space Station (ISS) and only four—a radar-mapping flight, two Hubble Space Telescope servicing calls and the deployment of the Chandra X-ray Observatory—had been dedicated to non-station activities.

This caused concern to both the scientific community and Congress, who feared that such paucity of “science” missions threatened to harm the United States’ lead in the microgravity research arena. “We can’t expect the scientific community to remain engaged,” Congressman Dana Rohrabacher told a March 2000 hearing, “if researchers do not see hope that there will be research flight opportunities on a regular basis.” Columbia’s 16-day mission, STS-107, was set to address that issue.

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New Horizons Completes Another Course Adjustment in Preparation for 2019 Flyby of Next KBO

Artist’s conception of New Horizons approaching 2014 MU69 in 2019. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/Steve Gribben

Long after its incredible encounter with Pluto and its moons in 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft is continuing its journey deeper into the Kuiper Belt in the outer reaches of the Solar System. Mission scientists and engineers are now preparing for its next close flyby, of a smaller body called 2014 MU69, on Jan. 1, 2019. Along the way, New Horizons makes occasional slight course corrections to keep it on track, and now the spacecraft has just successfully completed its latest one.

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'Go at Throttle Up': Remembering the Sacrifice of the Challenger Seven (Part 2)

Flocks of terrified birds fly away in the face of Challenger's roaring ascent from Pad 39B at 11:38 a.m. EST on 28 January 1986. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Flocks of terrified birds fly away in the face of Challenger’s roaring ascent from Pad 39B at 11:38 a.m. EST on 28 January 1986. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Thirty-one winters have now passed since the frightful morning of Tuesday, 28 January 1986, when Space Shuttle Challenger roared into the crystal-blue Florida sky, kicking off what should have been her 10th voyage into orbit. During almost three years of operational service for NASA, she had safely carried 46 men and women into space—one of them on no less than three occasions—and back to Earth. Those crews had delivered and repaired satellites, conducted spacewalks, and operated experiments in science and technology. The first U.S. woman astronaut had journeyed to orbit aboard Challenger, as had the first African-American spacefarer, the first Canadian, and the first Dutchman. The first untethered spacewalk had been performed from Challenger, and the first U.S. woman had spacewalked from Challenger.

Challenger, it seemed, was a charmed machine.

On Tuesday, 28 January 1986, that charm ended.

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Lost Innocence: Remembering the Sacrifice of the Challenger Seven (Part 1)

The infamous image, flashed around the world on 28 January 1986, immediately after Challenger's tragic destruction. The disaster stalled the shuttle program for almost three years. Photo Credit: NASA

The infamous image, flashed around the world on 28 January 1986, immediately after Challenger’s tragic destruction. The disaster stalled the shuttle program for almost three years. Photo Credit: NASA

Thirty-one years ago, today, on 28 January 1986, one of the worst and most public disasters in U.S. space history unfolded with horrifying suddenness in the skies above Cape Canaveral. The sight of Challenger exploding, just 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven crew members, is so harrowing that for all of us who witnessed it live, it still carries the power to haunt. Over the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years to come, it would be played out again and again via television and later the Internet. The ramifications of the Challenger accident were so profound that they entirely reshaped the subsequent history of the shuttle program. An innocence, astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson once said, was lost on 28 January 1986, and never again would words such as “safe” or “routine” or “easy” be employed to describe the fleet of reusable orbiters, the brave souls who flew them, or the work they did. The loss of Challenger served as a stark reminder of the sheer dangers involved in space exploration and the unforgiving nature of high technology.

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PHOTOS: Dream Chaser Delivered to Edwards AFB for Next Flight Test

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft was delivered to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center this week, where it will undergo several months of testing in preparation for its second approach and landing flight. The data SNC gathers from this test campaign will help influence and inform the final design of the cargo Dream Chaser, which will fly at least six cargo delivery missions to and from the International Space Station for NASA by 2024. A crew version could become a reality one day as well. Photo Credit: NASA / Ken Ulbrich

It has been just over a year now since NASA announced the winners of their multi-billion dollar second round of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) contracts to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) from 2019 through 2024. SpaceX and Orbital ATK both secured contracts, but Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), who was not selected by NASA for a big commercial crew contract in 2014, was awarded a CRS-2 cargo contract too, allowing for the dream of their Dream Chaser spaceplane to now become a reality.

This week SNC took another significant step toward that reality, delivering an engineering test article of their “mini shuttle” to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, located at Edwards Air Force Base, where it will now undergo several months of testing in preparation for its next approach and landing flight test on the base’s runway 22L.

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