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Next-gen spacecraft on display in Florida

TWO OF THE NEXT GENERATION of space vehicles are going through their paces on the ground in Florida.

The Orion Ground Test Vehicle is seen in the photo below in the high bay of the Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Centre, during a tour for media representatives.

Orion is the spacecraft designed to carry crews to space beyond low-Earth orbit. It will provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

In many respects, Orion is similar to the old Apollo command module, but with the ability of carry at least four astronauts (Apollo could carry only three).

It was announced only weeks ago, that the Orion service module will be provided by the European Space Agency, based upon its successful Automated Transfer Vehicle uncrewed cargo craft.

The first unpiloted test flight of the Orion is scheduled in 2014 atop a Delta IV rocket, and in 2017, on a Space Launch System rocket.

The Orion Ground Test Vehicle at the Kennedy Space Centre

The Orion Ground Test Vehicle at the Kennedy Space Centre

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, undergoing processing for the system’s second operational flight.

Meanwhile, the Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, Dragon spacecraft with solar array fairings attached, is seen inside a processing hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The spacecraft will launch on the upcoming SpaceX CRS-2 mission, perhaps in March. The flight will be the second commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station by SpaceX.

NASA has contracted for a total of 12 commercial resupply flights from SpaceX and eight from the Orbital Sciences Corp.

Adapted from information issued by NASA. Photos by Frankie Martin and Kim Shiflett.

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Cargo capsule set for launch

Artist's impression of the Dragon spacecraft in orbit.

Artist's impression of the Dragon spacecraft in orbit.

AT THE CAPE CANAVERAL Air Force Station (adjacent to the Kennedy Space Centre) in Florida, final preparations are being made for a historic launch at the end of this month.

The unmanned Dragon capsule and its Falcon 9 rocket, both privately developed by the SpaceX corporation, are due for launch on April 30 (USA time) on a combined test flight and cargo flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA is providing seed money to SpaceX and a second company, Orbital Sciences, to develop and operate unmanned craft that can keep the ISS resupplied in the post-shuttle era.

SpaceX is intending to field a manned version of Dragon later this decade, capable of taking seven astronauts into low Earth orbit.

More information: NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation System

Dragon capsule is placed atop its cargo ring

Dragon capsule is mated to a "ring" that will sit on top of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Falcon 9 rocket in inside a processing hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Falcon 9 rocket in inside a processing hangar at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station

Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon capsule attached on top sits fully fuelled on Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida during a launch dress rehearsal.

Story by Jonathan Nally. Images courtesy NASA / Gianni Woods / Jim Grossmann / Kim Shiflett.

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Gallery – NASA’s next spacecraft options

Artist's conception of the Dream Chaser spacecraft

Artist's conception of the Dream Chaser spacecraft under development by Sierra Nevada of Centennial, Colorado. Dream Chaser would launch vertically on an Atlas V rocket but land horizontally like the Space Shuttle. It aims to carry seven people into low-Earth orbit.

IN 2011, NASA SELECTED a number of companies to mature the design and development of a crew transportation system with the overall goal of accelerating a United States-led capability to the International Space Station.

The programme is called the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), part of the Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2).

According to NASA, the goal of CCP is to drive down the cost of space travel as well as open up space to more people than ever before by balancing industry’s own innovative capabilities with NASA’s 50 years of human spaceflight experience.

Seven aerospace companies are maturing launch vehicle and spacecraft designs under CCDev2, including Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK); The Boeing Co.; Excalibur Almaz Inc.; Blue Origin; Sierra Nevada; and United Launch Alliance (ULA).

Artist's conception of the Dragon capsule

Artist's conception of the Dragon capsule under development by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California. The unmanned version of the Dragon capsule has already had one successful test flight. The second test flight, due for February 2012, will see it dock with the International Space Station (ISS). After that, it will go into revenue service taking cargo to the ISS. The manned version is still some years away from flight.

Artist's conception of the New Shepard spacecraft

Artist's conception of the New Shepard spacecraft under development by Blue Origin of Kent, Washington.

Artist's conception of the CST-100

Artist's conception of the CST-100 under development by The Boeing Co. of Houston. The CST-100 will be able to take up to seven astronauts to the ISS.

Artist's conceptions of the Atlas V and Liberty Launch vehicles

Artist's conceptions of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket (left) and the Liberty Launch Vehicle (right) under development by Alliant Techsystems Inc., both of which are being considered for NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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2011: The year in space

Artist's impression of the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter

Artist's impression of the Juno spacecraft investigating Jupiter. Juno is set for launch later this year.

THERE ARE LOTS OF EXCITING happenings coming up in space this year. Here’s just a sample of what we can expect.

On February 14-15, NASA’s Stardust probe will do a fly-by of comet Tempel 1. It’ll be looking for damage done by the Deep Impact spacecraft, which fired a projectile into the comet back in 2005.

Also there’ll be the launch of Glory, an Earth-orbiting spacecraft that’ll make readings of black carbon and aerosols in the atmosphere, and measure the amount of incoming sunlight. Plus there’ll be the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery, on a mission to the space station.

March will see NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft go into orbit around Mercury, the first probe to do so. A largely unknown world, the closest planet to the Sun is sure to hold some surprises. That month will also mark 25 years since Europe’s Giotto probe gave us our first close-up look at a comet, the famous Halley.

In April there’ll be a bunch of anniversaries, the 30th of the first space shuttle launch, the 40th of the first space station launch (which was the Soviet’s Salyut 1), and the biggie, the 50th anniversary of the flight of Vostok 1, carrying Yuri Gagarin, the first person to go into outer space.

Artist's impression of Salyut 1

Artist's impression of Salyut 1, the world's first space station.

April will also see the last flight of space shuttle Endeavour. And it could be the final shuttle mission of all. An extra flight by Atlantis in June has been approved but not yet funded, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Also in June, some parts of Australia will catch a short glimpse of a lunar eclipse.

July will see the second flight of the new, private Dragon spacecraft, designed to take cargo and eventually people to the International Space Station. Its first short test flight last year went perfectly. Dragon could end up being the replacement for the space shuttle.

Also in July, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will sidle up to the 530km-wide asteroid Vesta, and go into orbit. It’ll spend a year investigating it before heading off to do the same thing with the even larger asteroid Ceres, which is actually known as a dwarf planet these days.

Artist's impression of the Dawn spacecraft

Artist's impression of the Dawn spacecraft studying asteroid Vesta

August will see the launch of Juno, NASA’s new unmanned mission to study the planet Jupiter. It’ll take about five years to get there. And the following month will see NASA launch GRAIL, a pair of satellites that’ll orbit the Moon and map its gravitational field, which will help scientists work out its inner structure.

In November, Russia will launch Fobos-Grunt, a mission to the larger of the two Martian moons, Phobos. All going well, it’ll touch down, grab some samples, and blast off back to Earth with them. The Chinese are piggybacking a small satellite too, which will orbit Mars and study its atmosphere, ionosphere and surface.

Finally, in December, there’ll be another launch of that Dragon capsule, plus the first launch of its competitor, called Cygnus. And to top it off, we’ll have another lunar eclipse.

Image credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

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