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Mars rover to launch this week

NASA’S MARS SCIENCE LABORATORY mission, carrying the car-sized Curiosity rover, is only days away from launch. The video above explains what scientists hope to achieve with the mission.

The ambitious mission will see the nuclear-powered rover spend at least two years investigating the geology of Gale Crater, a 154-kilometre-wide crater just south of Mars crater.

Gale is named after Walter Frederick Gale, an Australian astronomer of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Mars Science Laboratory is set for lift-off at 2:02am, Sydney time, on Sunday, November 27.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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NASA launch tower goes for a ride

THE MOBILE LAUNCHER that will host NASA’s Space Launch System and new Orion spacecraft was moved to Launch Pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to begin two weeks of structural and systems tests.

This is the first time the mobile launcher has moved that far. The 3,000-tonne structure rode to the pad atop one of the crawler-transporters that carried the space shuttles and Saturn V rockets to the launch pads.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / Kim Shiflett.

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Ride a rocket into space

THIS IS A GREAT VIDEO showing what it’s like to fly into space and back aboard a rocket.

On March 23, 2011, two on-board cameras followed a “sounding rocket” on its journey up to 285 kilometres altitude and back down again.

A sounding rocket is small, unmanned rocket that generally is shot straight up through the atmosphere. They’re often used to conduct measurements of conditions in the upper atmosphere and in space just above. They’re also sometimes used to make observations of astronomical objects out in space.

The main panel on the right shows the view looking backwards down the length of the rocket. The smaller panel on the left shows the view looking upward along the rocket. And in the upper left corner is a diagram showing the trajectory of the rocket.

Note also how the rocket spins during ascent. This is deliberate, and is done to keep it on course. It’s a gyroscopic effect.

Another thing to take note of is the sound. The sound of launch can be heard, as well as the rush as the rocket gains altitude. But the noise dies away after about a minute—this is because the air has become too thin for sounds to propagate easily.

Sounding rockets travel very fast and their flights are correspondingly brief.

In this case, the rocket was launched to measure solar energy output and make measurements that were used to calibrate an instrument on the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a Sun-monitoring spacecraft.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / GSFC.

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Soyuz launches crew to the Space Station

IT WAS A COLD, SNOWY DAY at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan as Expedition 29 Soyuz Commander Anton Shkaplerov, NASA Flight Engineer Dan Burbank and Russian Flight Engineer Anatoly Ivanishin launched on the Russian Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft to begin a two-day journey to the International Space Station.

The trio will dock with the station on November 15, USA time, to start a five-and-a-half-month stay on the complex, joining station Commander Mike Fossum of NASA, Russian Flight Engineer Sergei Volkov and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa, who have been on the outpost since June.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Test flight for new manned craft

THIS ANIMATION DEPICTS the proposed test flight of the Orion spacecraft in 2014. During the test, which is called Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), Orion will launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, perform two orbits, reaching an altitude higher than any achieved by a spacecraft intended for human use since 1973, and then will re-enter and land in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of the United States.

“The entry part of the test will produce data needed to develop a spacecraft capable of surviving speeds greater than 20,000 mph and safely return astronauts from beyond Earth orbit,” Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William Gerstenmaier said. “This test is very important to the detailed design process in terms of the data we expect to receive.”

NASA is developing the Orion spacecraft to launch astronauts to asteroids, the Moon, Mars and other destinations atop the Space Launch System (SLS), the agency’s new heavy launch vehicle.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Video – Satellites sent into orbit

A HUGE ARIANE 5 ROCKET thunders into space in this dramatic video. The launch took place at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, and the mission was to place two telecommunications satellites, Arabsat-5C and SES-2, into their planned transfer orbits.

Liftoff of flight VA204, the 60th Ariane 5 mission, came at 7:38am (Sydney time) on September 22, 2011.

The 50.5-metre-tall Ariane 5 is a heavy-lift rocket, with a mass of 780 tonnes (including fuel) at lift-off.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / CNES / Arianespace / Photo Optique vidéo du CSG.

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Satellite re-entry poses no danger

UARS graphic

The Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite is due to re-enter Earth's atmosphere in the next 24 hours.

SPACE JUNK COMES IN different shapes and sizes, and can pose two main kinds of threats—a threat to other spacecraft (unmanned and manned) through collisions, and threats to us down here on Earth.

The satellite making news at the moment—the former Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite, better characterised as a decommissioned or defunct satellite rather than space junk—falls into the second category.

In 2005, NASA decommissioned UARS and intentionally placed it into an orbit a couple of hundred kilometres lower than its operational orbit. This was done to accelerate is eventual demise, and means it is re-entering the atmosphere 20 years earlier than it otherwise would have done.

This was a very responsible thing to do. The longer a spacecraft stays in orbit, the more chance it has of being hit by other orbital debris, leading to a destructive breakup and therefore many more bits of debris.

UARS poses a negligible threat to life and property on Earth. Most of the satellite will burn up during re-entry, with perhaps as many as 26 of the stronger or harder small pieces surviving to reach the surface.

But with the majority of Earth comprising oceans or uninhabited (or very sparsely inhabited) remote regions, the chances are overwhelming that any pieces of UARSthat survive re-entry will fall harmlessly and never be seen again.

UARS re-entry map

This map shows the orbital path of the Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite, and it's predicted impact located (yellow symbol within the orange circle at left) in the southern Pacific Ocean.

Because the spacecraft is no longer powered, NASA has no control over where it comes down.

It is thought to be tumbling gently as it makes its final orbits. Friction with the thin upper atmosphere is slowly lowering its orbit, bit by bit. Sometime in the next 24 hours it will reach a low enough point and sufficient air friction such that it will no longer be able to maintain orbital velocity.

At this point it will begin to burn up and streak across the sky like a huge fireball. It would be quite something to see, but chances are that no one will witness it.

The other kind of space junk—bits of orbital debris that range from less than a millimetre wide up to entire spacecraft—is more of a worry. Space junk can damage or destroy an operational spacecraft, leading to loss of the asset and the service it provides.

More information:

NASA UARS re-entry page

Re-entry prediction map

UARS mission

Text by Jonathan Nally, SpaceInfo.com.au. Images courtesy NASA and aerospace.org

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NASA goes back to the future…again

NASA HAS SELECTED THE DESIGN of a new Space Launch System that will take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before, create high-quality jobs here at home, and provide the cornerstone for America’s future human space exploration efforts.

This new heavy-lift rocket-in combination with a crew capsule already under development, increased support for the commercialisation of astronaut travel to low Earth orbit, an extension of activities on the International Space Station until at least 2020, will provide a fresh focus on new technologies-is key to implementing the plan laid out by President Obama and Congress in the bipartisan 2010 NASA Authorisation Act, which the president signed last year.

The booster will be America’s most powerful since the Saturn V rocket that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon and will launch humans to places no one has gone before.

Ambitious new programme

“This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.

“President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that’s exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow’s explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars.”

Destinations for NASA's new Heavy-Lift rocket—an asteroid and Mars.

Destinations for NASA's new Heavy-Lift rocket—an asteroid and Mars.

The launch vehicle decision is the culmination of a months-long, comprehensive review of potential designs to ensure the nation gets a rocket that is not only powerful but also evolvable so it can be adapted to different missions as opportunities arise and new technologies are developed.

“Having settled on a new and powerful heavy-lift launch architecture, NASA can now move ahead with building that rocket and the next-generation vehicles and technologies needed for an ambitious programme of crewed missions in deep space,” said John P. Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology.

“I’m excited about NASA’s new path forward and about its promise for continuing American leadership in human space exploration.”

Heavy-lift capacity

The SLS will carry human crews beyond low Earth orbit in a capsule named the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. The rocket will use a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel system, where RS-25D/E engines will provide the core propulsion and the J2X engine is planned for use in the upper stage.

There will be a competition to develop the boosters based on performance requirements.

The decision to go with the same fuel system for the core and the upper stage was based on a NASA analysis demonstrating that use of common components can reduce costs and increase flexibility.

Artist's impression of NASA's new Heavy-Lift rocket

Artist's impression of NASA's new Heavy-Lift rocket

The heavy-lift rocket’s early flights will be capable of lifting 70-100 metric tons before evolving to a lift capacity of 130 metric tons.

The early developmental flights may take advantage of existing solid boosters and other existing hardware. These flights will enable NASA to reduce developmental risk, drive innovation within the agency and private industry, and accomplish early exploration objectives.

Driving down costs

“NASA has been making steady progress toward realising the president’s goal of deep space exploration, while doing so in a more affordable way,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said.

“We have been driving down the costs on the Space Launch System and Orion contracts by adopting new ways of doing business and project hundreds of millions of dollars of savings each year.”

NASA elected to initiate a competition for the booster stage based on performance parameters rather than on the type of propellant because of the need for flexibility. The specific acquisition strategy for procuring the core stage, booster stage, and upper stage is being developed and will be announced at a later time.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Space junk reaches ‘tipping point’

Diagram showing space junk in Earth orbit

Earth is circled by millions of pieces of space junk, or orbital debris, many of which pose a serious risk to satellites and astronauts. Is it time to do something about it?

ALTHOUGH NASA’S PROGRAMMES to track meteoroids and orbital debris have responsibly used their resources, the agency’s has not kept pace with increasing hazards posed by abandoned equipment, spent rocket bodies, and other debris orbiting the Earth, says a new report by the US National Research Council.

NASA should develop a formal strategic plan to better allocate resources devoted to the management of orbital debris. In addition, removal of debris from the space environment or other actions to mitigate risks may be necessary.

Some scenarios generated by NASA’s meteoroid and orbital debris models show that debris has reached a “tipping point,” with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures, the report notes.

In addition, collisions with debris have disabled and even destroyed satellites in the past; a recent near-miss of the International Space Station underscores the value in monitoring and tracking orbital debris as precisely as possible.

Challenges for NASA

“The current space environment is growing increasingly hazardous to spacecraft and astronauts,” said Donald Kessler, chair of the committee that wrote the report and retired head of NASA’s Orbital Debris Programme Office.

“NASA needs to determine the best path forward for tackling the multifaceted problems caused by meteoroids and orbital debris that put human and robotic space operations at risk.

Space junk impact on space shuttle Endeavour

A small piece of space junk punched a hole through the inside of one of space shuttle Endeavour's payload bay doors, where heat radiators were situated.

The strategic plan NASA develops should provide a basis for prioritising efforts and allocating funds to the agency’s numerous meteoroid and orbital debris programmes, the report says.

Currently, the programmes do not have a single management and budget structure that can efficiently coordinate all of these activities. The programmes are also vulnerable to changes in personnel, as nearly all of them are staffed by just one person.

A global problem

The strategic plan, which should consider short- and long-term objectives, a schedule of benchmark achievements, and priorities among them, also should include potential research needs and management issues.

Removal of orbital debris introduces another set of complexities, the report adds, because only about 30 percent of the objects can be attributed to the United States.

“The Cold War is over, but the acute sensitivity regarding satellite technology remains,” explained committee vice chair George Gleghorn, former vice president and chief engineer for the TRW Space and Technology Group.

Although NASA has identified the need for removing debris, the agency and U.S. government as a whole have not fully examined the economic, technological, political, and legal considerations, the report says.

For example, according to international legal principle, no nation may salvage or otherwise collect other nations’ space objects.

Therefore, the report recommends, NASA should engage the U.S. Department of State in the legal requirements and diplomatic aspects of active debris removal.

The study was sponsored by NASA.

Adapted from information issued by the US National Academy of Sciences. Images courtesy NASA.

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Moon mission soon to launch

NASA’S LUNAR-BOUND GRAIL twins are being prepared for launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 17.

GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B will fly in tandem orbits around the Moon for several months to measure its gravity field in unprecedented detail. The mission will answer longstanding questions about the Moon, and provide scientists a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the Solar System formed.

GRAIL’s launch period opens September 8 and extends through to October 19. On each day, there are two separate instantaneous launch opportunities separated in time by approximately 39 minutes. On September 8, the first launch opportunity is at 10:37pm Sydney time (8:37am EDT). The second launch opportunity is 11:16pm (9:16am EDT).

Adapted from information issued by NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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