Grand Final Part 4: Cassini Completes Eighth Ring Crossing, and a 'Tour of Saturn's Moons'

A haunting raw image view of Saturn and its rings taken on June 7, 2017 by Cassini. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

As Cassini’s “Grand Finale” journey continues, the spacecraft has completed its eighth dive past the innermost rings of Saturn (known as a ring crossing), and there are now just under 100 days left until it plunges into the giant planet’s atmosphere, never to come back. Although time may be running out, Cassini continues to devour every drop of science data that it can, which builds upon other data that has transformed our view of the Saturnian system – a complex array of worlds like a miniature Solar System. This includes, of course, more fantastic images of Saturn and its rings and moons. The detail seen in the rings is nothing short of staggering.

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'Magic Carpet Ride': 40 Years Since Enterprise Took the Space Shuttle to Altitude (Part 2)

Enterprise’s Captive-Active flights, which began 40 years ago, this month, laid the groundwork for the Free Flights and eventually the maiden Space Shuttle mission. Photo Credit: NASA

The Approach and Landing Test (ALT) series of the Space Shuttle, which began 40 years ago, in the summer of 1977, were “just that”, in the words of NASA astronaut Joe Engle. Their goal was to deliver Orbiter Vehicle (OV)-101, nicknamed “Enterprise”, to an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,600 meters), atop a heavily modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), above Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Engle and fellow astronauts Fred Haise, Dick Truly and Gordon Fullerton, would place Enterprise—a near-identical version of the orbiters which would someday launch 135 times from Earth—into aerodynamic flight, exercising its hydraulic, electronic, flight-control and landing systems in conditions as close as possible to those the real Space Shuttle would experience during its descent and landing.

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'In a Real Flight Environment': 40 Years Since Enterprise Took the Space Shuttle to Altitude (Part 1)

Flying Enterprise for her test flights were (from left) Gordon Fullerton, Fred Haise, Joe Engle and Dick Truly. Photo Credit: NASA

Four decades ago, this summer, a shuttle (though not a “space” shuttle) took to the skies above Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to show the world what she could do. Outwardly, Orbiter Vehicle (OV)-101, nicknamed “Enterprise”, bore all the hallmarks of her five sisters who would someday voyage into low-Earth orbit, with the notable exception that she would never fly higher than about 25,000 feet (7,600 meters). The role of Enterprise and the men who flew her—Fred Haise, Joe Engle, Dick Truly and Gordon Fullerton—enabled a more comprehensive understanding of the shuttle’s flying characteristics in the low atmosphere and laid much of the groundwork for the maiden voyage of Columbia in April 1981.

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New Findings from Curiosity Hint Ancient Mars Lake 'Favorable for Different Microbial Life'

Mudstone lakebed sedimentary deposits seen by the Curiosity rover in Gale crater. The latest findings show that the lake in the crater was stratified and could have supported a wide variety of microorganisms. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Was Mars ever habitable? Did life ever actually exist there? Those are two of the biggest questions for planetary scientists and slowly but surely, we are getting closer to answering them. Well, the first one has been, thanks to the numerous orbiters, landers and rovers which have been sent to the Red Planet over the past few decades. Mars was indeed much more habitable than it is now, in the distant past, although we still don’t know if it was actually inhabited, two different things. Much of the data confirming past habitability has come from the Curiosity rover, which has been exploring an ancient lakebed in Gale crater, and now new findings suggest that this lake offered multiple types of microbe-friendly environments simultaneously. This is good news for the possibility that some form of life, even if just microscopic, did once exist there or perhaps even still does.

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PHOTOS: SpaceX CRS-11 Launch and Landing

Falcon soars off 39A with the first reused Dragon cargo capsule on the CRS-11 resupply mission to the ISS for NASA. Photo Credit: John Studwell / AmericaSpace

SpaceX is checking off milestones at an impressive pace lately, and yesterday’s successful launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida was no different. Following a weather scrub 48 hours earlier, the skies cooperated Saturday for a 5:07 p.m. EDT liftoff from historic pad 39A. It was the 100th flight off the former Apollo and space shuttle launch complex, and the first mission to employ a reused Dragon cargo capsule.

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‘Knight in Shining Armor': 10 Years Since STS-117 Changed the Face of the Space Station (Part 2)

John “Danny” Olivas is just barely visible at center-right, near the deploying Photovoltaic Radiator (PVR) on the S-3/S-4 truss during the first spacewalk of STS-117. Photo Credit: NASA

Ten years ago, this week, Space Shuttle Atlantis launched on what would turn out to be the longest mission of her storied career, lasting almost 14 days. Commander Rick “C.J.” Sturckow, Pilot Lee “Bru” Archambault and Mission Specialists Pat Forrester, Steve Swanson, John “Danny” Olivas and Jim “J.R.” Reilly supported four ambitious spacewalks to install and activate the S-3/S-4 truss segment at the International Space Station (ISS). The truss provided a pair of gigantic Solar Array Wings (SAWs), as well as radiators, batteries and associated electronics, to enable the addition of further pressurized modules, including European and Japanese labs. The crew also delivered Clay Anderson to the station for a multi-month tour of duty and returned fellow NASA astronaut Suni Williams to Earth after a record-setting half-year in orbit. Before the flight, Anderson light-heartedly described himself as Williams’ “knight in shining armor”.

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First Reusable Dragon Cargo Mission Launches Science and Supplies to Space Station

The CRS-11 Falcon 9 first stage returns to Earth, making a successful landing back at Cape Canaveral AFS after launching Dragon to the ISS minutes earlier from KSC pad 39A. Photo Credit: NASA TV

If candles celebrate an anniversary, then the roar of Merlin 1D+ rocket engines honored the 100th launch from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, earlier today (Saturday, 3 June). SpaceX’s Upgraded Falcon 9 booster roared aloft from the historic complex at 5:07 p.m. EDT, precisely on the cusp of an “instantaneous” launch window. The launch occurred on the second attempt, following a scrub less than a half-hour before Thursday’s planned attempt, due to lightning in the KSC area.

Less than eight minutes after leaving the pad—which has supported 82 Space Shuttle launches, including the first and last missions in the 30-year program, as well as the first flight to assemble the International Space Station—three more historic events transpired: the injection of the ISS-bound CRS-11 Dragon cargo ship into low-Earth orbit, the first reflight of a “used” Dragon and the pinpoint touchdown of the Upgraded Falcon 9’s first stage on Landing Zone (LZ)-1, approximately nine miles (15 km) away from Pad 39A.

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'Just Do It...Again': 10 Years Since STS-117 Changed the Face of the Space Station (Part 1)

Atlantis launches on her longest space mission on 8 June 2007. Photo Credit: NASA

Ten years have now passed since STS-117 literally changed the face of the International Space Station (ISS), delivering and activating a new set of power-producing solar arrays, batteries and radiators. Aboard shuttle Atlantis in June 2007 for what would turn out to be the longest mission of her career, six NASA astronauts installed the gigantic S-3/S-4 component of the station’s Integrated Truss Structure (ITS) and performed no fewer than four sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA). On STS-117, an element of symmetry was afforded to the appearance of the ISS, as well as providing it with the electricity-generating capability to support the arrival of European and Japanese labs in 2008.

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'The Clock Was Ticking': 15 Years Since STS-111’s Repairmen Visited the Space Station (Part 2)

Endeavour is pictured docked to the space station’s U.S. Destiny lab, with the S-0 truss visible at far right. Also visible are the shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm at center and a portion of Canadarm2 at bottom-left. Photo Credit: NASA

Over the past five decades, more than 500 people have voyaged beyond Earth’s atmosphere and into space. Some have been “frequent flyers”, chalking up multiple missions into low-Earth orbit and—in the case of 24 Apollo astronauts—to lunar distance. Yet with the advent of the Space Shuttle program, the idea of frequently flying humans into space literally grew wings. Fifteen years ago, next week, Franklin Chang-Diaz became only the second person after fellow U.S. astronaut Jerry Ross to chalk up a seventh launch from Earth.

By their own admission, neither Chang-Diaz nor Ross wanted their records to stand for long and both were philosophical about why they did it. “I don’t see it so much as a mark in history,” said Ross, “as just another opportunity for me to go do something I thoroughly enjoy.” Chang-Diaz, for his part, hoped that future astronauts would go on to fly 10-15 missions as part of their careers. “It doesn’t do much to me in terms of keeping records,” said the Costa Rica-born veteran. “I’m hoping that these kinds of record will be easily broken and many times over.” Sadly, a decade and a half after Ross’ and Chang-Diaz’s missions, their joint record remains unbroken. And it seems unlikely to be broken anytime soon.

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'We Had a Bet...and I Lost': 15 Years Since STS-111's Repairmen Visited the Space Station (Part 1)

Although he had six previous shuttle missions to his credit, Franklin Chang-Diaz had yet to make a spacewalk. On STS-111, he made three. Photo Credit: NASA

Fifteen years ago, next week, the second human to launch from Earth as many as seven times began what would be his final space mission. Costa Rica-born U.S. plasma physicist Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz, it might be supposed, had seen and done everything during his two-decade astronaut career. He had deployed and retrieved satellites, had performed scientific research and rendezvous and had even launched a spacecraft to Jupiter, but in none of his six prior flights had he ever made a spacewalk. That would change on Space Shuttle mission STS-111.

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