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Mousetronauts to help health studies

Artwork of mouse on a satellite

Sixteen mice are serving aboard space shuttle Discovery during its current mission. They're being used in immune system studies. (Note: this artwork does not represent the actual experiment.)

WHEN SPACE SHUTTLE DISCOVERY roared into orbit for its final mission on February 24, it took with it 16 mice, which are playing an important role in immune system research.

Research has shown that the immune system is compromised during and after spaceflight.

Immunosuppression in space and increased susceptibility to pathogens is not only an obstacle to long-term human space travel…understanding it may also lead to effective preventive measures or treatments for humans on Earth.

Animal Enclosure Module

The Animal Enclosure Module (AEM) is a self-contained rodent habitat that provides its occupants with living space, food, water, ventilation, and lighting.

“We believe a combination of stresses during spaceflight affect the ability of the body to respond to respiratory viral pathogens like those that cause cold and flu even after you’re back on Earth,” said Roberto Garofalo, Principal Investigator of the Mouse Immunology-2 (MI2) experiment and a professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston.

The 16 mice will be studied in order to better understand why the body’s mechanisms to fight off infection are weakened. After return to Earth they will be exposed to a common virus called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

RSV is a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. It is the leading cause of lower respiratory tract illness in infants and children worldwide and is more often being recognised as an important cause of respiratory illness in older adults.

Most people who are otherwise healthy recover from an RSV infection in a couple weeks. But young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, can have severe symptoms that require hospitalisation and treatment.

The goal of the MI2 experiment is to discover what triggers and leads to an increased susceptibility to an infection. These findings can be used to help treat and prevent future astronauts from getting sick, as well as protect people with more vulnerable immune systems here on Earth.

STS-133 is the 25th flight of the unique Animal Enclosure Module (AEM) hardware, which was designed to protect animals from the space environment, provide them with plenty of food and water, keep them healthy, and bring them safely back to Earth. The hardware was developed by NASA Ames Research Centre.

More information: Animal Enclose Module

Adapted from information issued by NASA Space Biosciences. Images courtesy NASA and NASA Space Biosciences.

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Designing capsules for space

WHY WAS THE APOLLO capsule shaped like a gumdrop? Learn about the blunt-shaped capsules used for past and present NASA spacecraft in this NASA video, which shows how engineers come up with novel and useful designs.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Discovery’s final flight

NASA IS ABOUT TO LAUNCH space shuttle Discovery on its final voyage into space. The STS-133 mission will take extra equipment and spare parts to the International Space Station.

Lift-off is due at 8:50am Sydney time on Friday, February 25 (4:50pm US EST on Thursday, February 24).

The video above is a 10-minute-long NASA production that describes Discovery’s history and covers the STS-133 flight. Note that this video was produced in October 2010, before the original launch date of November 2010. Launch was delayed until this month due to a problem with the external fuel tank. Also, there has been one substitution in the crew.

The video below is a 24-minute-long NASA briefing that explains what the astronauts will be doing during the mission, and includes amazing computer-generated graphics.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Discovery set to launch this week

HERE IS NASA’S LATEST video update, which—amongst other news—includes details of the last flight of space shuttle Discovery, due for lift-off at 8:50am Sydney time on Friday, February 25 (4:50pm Thursday Feb 24, US EST).

Carried aboard Discovery will be Robonaut 2 (R2), the first humanoid robot in space. Once R2 is unpacked inside the International Space Station—likely several months after it arrives—it will be initially operated inside the Destiny laboratory for operational testing, but over time, both its territory and its applications could expand.

Finally, the video below is the STS-133 mission Flight Readiness Review Briefing. It gives a lot more information about Discovery’s mission and preparations for launch. Be warned though – it is 50 minutes long, so you might need to grab a snack to keep you going.

Adapted from information issued by NASA. Image credit: NASA / Jack Pfaller.

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Moon craters honour shuttle crew

Craters named after Challenger astronauts

Lunar craters named after the seven Challenger astronauts. The craters are located in the Apollo basin.

FOLLOWING THE LOSS of the space shuttle Challenger during launch in 1986, seven craters on the eastern rim of the Moon’s Apollo basin were named after the crew—Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee and Michael Smith.

This image was taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera. See the full-size (1.7MB) image here.

Apollo is a 524-kilometre-diameter impact basin located within the centre of the giant lunar South Pole-Aitken basin. The region has been identified as an area of interest for future human lunar exploration.

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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Amazing shuttle launch video!

Watch this amazing 45-minute-long video of the “best of the best” imagery of NASA space shuttle launches.

NASA engineer Matt Melis is an expert in imagery analysis at the Glenn Research Centre, and in this documentary he shows us how photographic documentation of a space shuttle launch “plays a critical role in the engineering analysis and evaluation process that takes place during each and every mission.”

Adapted from information issued by NASA Glenn Research Centre / Matt Melis.

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Shuttle launch scrubbed

Shuttle Discovery on the launch pad at KSC

Shuttle Discovery sits on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Centre. Repairs will be needed to fix a hydrogen leak and insulation problems before launch on November 30.

NASA has postponed the launch of space shuttle Discovery to no earlier than 8:05pm Sydney time (4:05am US EST) on November 30.

The delay will allow engineers and technicians time to diagnose and repair a hydrogen gas leak detected while filling the external tank Friday morning. They also will assess a foam crack on the external fuel tank’s liquid oxygen intertank flange, near the point where the nose of Discovery is connected to the tank by a bipod brace. The crack was discovered during de-tanking operations.

The leak was at the Ground Umbilical Carrier Plate, an attachment point between the external tank and a 7-inch pipe that carries gaseous hydrogen safely away from Discovery to the flare stack, where it is burned off.

“We always place safety first,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier. “It is essential we repair this hardware before we fly the mission, and we will take the time to properly understand and fix the failure before we launch.”

The six astronauts for Discovery’s 11-day STS-133 mission will deliver the Permanent Multipurpose Module to the International Space Station. The PMM was converted from the multi-purpose logistics module Leonardo. It can hold microgravity experiments in areas such as fluid physics, materials science, biology, and biotechnology.

Inside the PMM is Robonaut 2, which will become a permanent resident of the station. R2 will be used to test how dexterous robots behave in space.

STS-133 also is carrying critical spare components to the space station and the Express Logistics Carrier 4. ELC 4 is an external platform that holds large equipment. The mission will feature two spacewalks to do maintenance work and install new components.

Commander Steve Lindsey leads the veteran crew, which consists of pilot Eric Boe and Mission Specialists Alvin Drew, Tim Kopra, Michael Barratt and Nicole Stott.

STS-133 is the final shuttle mission planned for 2010, Discovery’s 39th and final scheduled flight, and the 35th shuttle mission to the station.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Robot heads for the Station

Robonaut 2 is ready for its history-making launch to the International Space Station on STS-133. Known as R2, the robot will be the first humanoid machine to work in orbit.

With an upper torso, long arms and a suite of cameras and sensors, Robonaut 2 is programmed to help astronauts living on the space station by performing repetitive tasks. It’s hands and fingers are able to operate buttons and switches found inside the space station.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Discovery to launch on last flight

UPDATE: Discovery’s lift-off is now set for 6:04am Sydney time Saturday (Thursday 1904 GMT or 3:04pm US EDT).

As space shuttle Discovery heads to the International Space Station on its final mission, it will be taking with it two key components—the Italian-built Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) and Express Logistics Carrier 4 (ELC4)—which will provide spare parts and storage capacity to the orbiting complex.

Discovery also will deliver Robonaut 2, which will become the first humanoid robot in space.

The 39th flight of NASA’s most flown shuttle is scheduled to last 11 days. The flight is designated Utilisation and Logistics Flight 5 (ULF5), in the assembly sequence of the space station.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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