Weekly Space Blog 6/20

Hubble to search for New Horizons next target

When New Horizons was first launched towards Pluto the plan was for it to complete it’s mission and then fly on to another object in the Kuiper belt and perform the same observations as it does at Pluto.  The second destination has not yet been choose and researchers are now utilizing the power of the Hubble Space Telescope to aid the search.  While there is still plenty of time the science team will need to ensure they determined the orbit of the object so they can make any adjustments to the path of New Horizons once it leaves Pluto.

For more information on New Horizons check out it page here.

Messenger spots Space Weather effects at Mercury

NASA’s Messenger spacecraft currently in orbit of Mercury has allowed scientists for the first time to spot a hot flow anomaly or HFA.  A HFA is a classic space weather event which has been previous spotted at Venus, Earth, Mars and Saturn.

For more information on HFA’s and this detection check out the article here.

NASA Centennial Sample Return Challenge at WPI

Last week a number of teams took part in the NASA Centennial Sample Return Robot Challenge that was hosted by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, MA.

For this years challenge there were two levels available, the first level teams would compete for 30 minutes and had to return the designated sample to their starting platform with the robot operating complete autonomously.  Fourteen teams competed for this level with a single $5000 prize being awarded to the Mountaineers, first-time competitors from West Virginia University, Morgantown.

For the second level, teams had 2 hours to complete the challenge, this time they had to autonomously collect as many samples as they could during the allotted time with the prize money based on total weigh collected within the rules which can be found here.  This year there was only one team competing for this level, Team Survey who had completed level one last year, unfortunately due to a malfunction during start up of the robot they were not able to complete the challenge.  They did reboot the robot and performed a demonstration run on the course allowing them to collect very valuable data on the performance of the robot.

This was the third year of the competition hosted by WPI, next year Mountaineers and Team Survey will both be eligible for level 2 if they choose to compete.

Airbus and Safran join forces in Launcher market

Love them or hate them SpaceX are clearly making waves in the satellite launcher business, this is born out by the news this week that Airbus Group and Safran are further strengthening there relationship by creating a 50-50 joint venture to combine the launcher systems from Airbus and propulsion systems from Safran.

The full article with details on each company can be found here.

Massive Binary Stars more common than thought

Researchers in Chile have observed 800 celestial objects that are up to 100 times heavier than our Sun, and concluded that 90% turn out to be multiple systems.  Current telescopes do not have the power to see individual objects with a multiple system however so they can only go by the oscillation of the brightness of the object while being observed.

For more information on the research check out the article here.

Coffee Machine heading to ISS

space-coffee-machine-isspressoAstronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) will soon be able to enjoy a freshly brewed coffee instead of the instant coffee they currently use.  The ISSpresso machine is a capsule based espresso machine built by coffee retailer Lavazza and aerospace company Argotec.  It is due to fly up to ISS later this year to coincide with the expedition of European Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti who will not only be the first Italian woman in space but if all goes as planned by the first to enjoy a real Italian espresso in space.

Earth’s gravity causes Lunar bulges

For the first time scientists have been able to observe the bulge on the surface of the moon that is created by the gravitational pull of the Earth on the moon, using NASA satellites.  Due to the size of both the Earth and Moon they are in a gravitational tug-of-war which stretches both and causes them to have a slight oval shape.

On Earth we see the effects of this in the tides, however on the moon it is much harder as it is solid on the surface.  Careful observations of the surface have shown a 20 inch bulge on each side of the moon.  While the same side of the moon faces the earth this bulge does move around slightly due to the wobble of the moon during it’s orbit.

For more information and a video check out the article here.

Final ALMA Antenna Arrives

The final ALMA antenna arrives at ChajnantorThe final antenna for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observatory, high on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, has arrived.  The array consists of 66 antenna’s which can work together to form a single massive radio telescope.  The array has been operation since 2011 and has already returned stunning images of the universe.

For more information on ALMA and to see the images check out the page here.

Are there large planets beyond Pluto?

The debate as to whether or not there are large planets beyond Pluto has been going on for decades and with the recent discovery of 2012 VP113 has revived interest in the subject.  Observations of extreme trans-Neptunian objects seems to indicate that they are being shepherded by a distant, undiscovered planet larger than Earth.

For more information on this check out the full article here.

Gaia Space Telescope stray light problem

Astronomers for the European space observatory Gaia, which was launched last December have run into a problem with stray light entering the spacecraft.  This stray light will effect how well it can see the stars it is observing, the Astronomers stated that this would only effect the faintest of stars.  They also announced that the optics are not transmitting as efficiently as designed but that the amount of scientific data return will still be immense.

For more information in Gaia and it’s mission check out the page here.

Methane Detection breakthrough

A team of scientists utilizing supercomputers have developed a new absorption spectrum for methane that is 2000 times more comprehensive than before.  This will allow Astronomers to sniff out Methane on alien planets and aid in the search for life beyond Earth.

The full article can be found here.

Giant Telescopes pair up to image near-Earth Asteroid

Scientists from NASA working with a team from the Arecibo Observatory have taken radar images of Asteroid “2014 HQ124”.  Captured on the 8th June they are some of the most detailed radar images of a near-Earth asteroid ever obtained.

The full article can be found here, including video.

ULA seeks alternate engine for Atlas 5

This week United Launch Alliance (ULA) signed contracts with multiple US companies to allow them to mature next-generation rocket engine concepts.  ULA would like to be able to replace the RD-180 rocket engines currently sourced from Russia with home-grown engines.  The contracts call for first launch in 2019.

The full press release can be found here.

Boeing preps layoffs related to commercial crew

Boeing are preparing to send out 215 layoff notices to employee’s currently working on the Commercial Crew entry CST-100.  Under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) they are required to give 60 days notice of any pending layoffs.

The next round of Commercial Crew awards is due over the summer, due to the funding it seems likely only one of the three competitors Sierra Nevada, Boeing and SpaceX will be awarded a CCtCap contract to continue working on there system.

NASA Dark Energy Mission could spot 3,000 more exo-planets

WFIRST_conceptA NASA mission designed to probe the nature of dark energy may also help discover thousands more exo-planets.  The Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) which is due to launch in the mid-2020’s will be able to capture 300 megapixels per image and would rely on gravitational microlensing to enable it to capture the images.

For more on WFIRST check out the mission page here.

NASA Requests Commercial Cargo Service Proposals

NASA has issued a Request For Proposal (RFP) for commercial services for the ISS.

The International Space Station (ISS) Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2) contract, a pre-solicitation conference is currently planned for August 7th with final proposals to be submitted by November 14th 2014.

The services requested are delivery of pressurized and unpressurized cargo, return and disposal of pressurized cargo, disposal of unpressurized cargo, special tasks and studies, and ground support services for the end-to-end cargo resupply services. The supplies to be delivered by terms of the contract include air, water, food, clothing, medicine, spare parts, and scientific experiments for use in the U.S. and International Partner experimental modules.

Russian EVA completed successfully

2014-06-19_121916Cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev conducted an extended seven-hour 23-minute spacewalk outside the International Space Station Thursday, installing a telemetry antenna, re-positioning an experiment and jettisoning a mounting fixture after moving another experiment to a recently installed payload boom.

They ran into several issues during the spacewalk trying to remove bolts that had been in place since the Zvezda module was first launched in July 2000, however were able to overcome those issues and complete the tasks successfully.

This was the first spacewalk for both Alexander and Oleg.

NASA wants to send Quadcopter Drone to Titan

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

While one NASA probe whizzes by Saturn’s moon Titan on Thursday to analyze its atmosphere, the American space agency is also considering a plan to send a quadcopter drone capable of searching for life.

The ambitious idea was outlined by Larry Matthies, a research scientist and supervisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California, and involves a drone that would be capable of flying out of a lander or balloon. The drone would explore the moon’s landscape and seas, collect samples, and return to the “mothership” in order to recharge its batteries and submit whatever it collects for analysis.

For more information check out the full article here.

Sierra Nevada Corporation to Acquire Orbital Technologies Corporation

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), headquartered in Sparks, Nevada, announces that it has signed a definitive purchase agreement to acquire the Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) as a wholly-owned subsidiary of SNC.  ORBITEC is a leading subsystems integrator and high technology development company based in Madison, Wisconsin. ORBITEC’s strong liquid rocket propulsion, life science and support, and fire suppression technology portfolio will enhance both SNC Space Systems’ Propulsion and Spacecraft Systems’ product lines.

The full press release can be found here.

E-ELT groundbreaking

E-ELT blasting close-up
E-ELT blasting close-up

The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) groundbreaking took place this week with a live Webcast of the first blast designed to flatten the mountaintop that the telescope will be built on.

The E-ELT will be the biggest optical/near-infrared telescope built so far with a 39m primary mirror made up of 768 hexagonal segments each 1.4m widfe and 5cm thick.  It will collect more light than all of the existing 8–10-metre class telescopes on the planet combined, and 100 million times more light than the human eye.

For more information on E-ELT check out it’s page here.

Russian Dnepr rocket lofts record haul of 37 satellites

A Russian Dnepr rocket launched a record-breaking thirty-seven satellites on Friday morning local time, deploying a cluster of spacecraft for scientific research and commercial operation. The mission departed on schedule from Dombarovsky in Southern Russia at 01:11 local time (19:11 UTC on Thursday).

This launch saw the record for most spacecraft launched by a single rocket broken for the fourth time in less than a year.

NASA Announces Latest Progress, Upcoming Milestones in Hunt for Asteroids

NASA is on the hunt for an asteroid to capture with a robotic spacecraft, redirect to a stable orbit around the moon, and send astronauts to study in the 2020s — all on the agency’s human Path to Mars. Agency officials announced on Thursday recent progress to identify candidate asteroids for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), increase public participation in the search for asteroids, and advance the mission’s design.

NASA plans to launch the ARM robotic spacecraft in 2019 and will make a final choice of the asteroid for the mission about a year before the spacecraft launches. NASA is working on two concepts for the mission: the first is to fully capture a very small asteroid in open space, and the second is to collect a boulder-sized sample off of a much larger asteroid. Both concepts would require redirecting an asteroid less than 32 feet (10 meters) in size into the moon’s orbit. The agency will choose between these two concepts in late 2014 and further refine the mission’s design.

The full article can be found here.

SpaceX Test Flight with Fins

This week SpaceX conducted another test flight of it’s F9R rocket, this time with deployable fins on the side of the rocket, these are designed to give the rocket more control during descent and is another step towards Elon Musk’s goal of having a fully re-usable Falcon 9 first stage.

No word yet when/if these will be flown on an actual Falcon 9 vehicle.

There may also be a possibility of testing the controlled descent on the Orbcomm flight scheduled for tonight.

SpaceX Launch later today (hopefully)

The Orbcomm OG2 launch has been rescheduled for later today, last Sunday’s attempt to scrapped to allow Orbcomm more time to verify their satellites were in a good configuration for launch.  The launch window starts of 6:08pm EDT and extends for 53 minutes.

At time of publishing the forecast shows only a 30% change that weather would co-operate, with a slightly better 60% tomorrow.  However the last launch had a low change of launching and they plugged away and got off the ground on time so there is a chance it will still go.

 

Active NASA missions

As we close out another year we are going to take a look at some of the other NASA missions that are active in the Solar System exploring other planets.  While the future looks a little uncertain at the moment due to the growing budget crisis there are plenty of spacecraft still in operation.

Voyager 1 & 2

Artist concept of NASA's Voyager spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We start our journey with two of the longest serving craft in the NASA fleet, Voyager 1 & 2 launched in 1977 have been traveling away from earth ever since and continue to function.  Their primary mission was to explore Jupiter and Saturn after making a number of discoveries at each their missions where extended.  Voyager 2 went on to explore Uranus and Neptune.  They are now traveling at the very edge of our solar system in the region called the Heliosheath where the influence of the solar wind from the sun is almost complete diminished.  We don’t currently know when the craft will actually exit the solar system however it is expected to be close.  At the time of writing Voyager 1 was 17 billion km from the sun and Voyager 2 was 14 billion km away.  At this distance it takes more than  a day for a signal to travel to the craft and back at the speed of light.  The craft are expected to operate until ~ 2020 when they will no longer have enough power for their instruments.  Follow the progress of the Voyager’s at there website.

Cassini-Huygens Mission

Next we take a look at the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft which is currently in orbit around Saturn.  Launched in 1997 the craft spent almost 7 years travelling to the Saturn system before entering into orbit.  Cassini-Huygens is actually two physical spacecraft and Orbiter which is named Cassini and is still in orbit today and a lander named Huygens which descendant into the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan shortly after the combined craft arrived at Saturn.  Initially designed for a four year mission in orbit around Saturn the mission has been extended several times with the current plan to crash the orbiter into Saturn in 2017.  Follow the progress of Cassini at it’s website.

Diagram of the Cassini Spacecraft

Dawn

Artist's concept of Dawn with Vesta and Ceres. Image credit: William K. Hartmann Courtesy of UCLA

Next we visit a spacecraft that will be the first two orbit two different objects in the Solar System, currently in orbit around the asteroid Vesta providing a wealth of information about the rocky object, once it’s mission is complete it will then travel onto the dwarf planet Ceres and again go into orbit.  Both objects are found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and are believed to have been created when the Solar System was created.  The decade long mission including travel time will allow scientists to learn more about the creation processes.  Follow Dawn’s progress at it’s website.

Messenger

The Messenger spacecraft is the first to orbit Mercury after spending more than 6 years traveling to the planet and covering more than 7.9 billion kilometers.  Unlike most of the other planets traveling to Mercury was a lot more complex due to how close it is to the Sun instead of a direct approach which would have constant accelerated the craft Messenger had to flyby Earth, Venus and Mercury several times before finally inserting into orbit.

Follow Messenger’s progress at it’s website.

New Horizons

The New Horizon’s spacecraft will be the first to fly-by Pluto, launched in 2006 the craft is rapidly approaching Pluto but still has just under 1300 days until closest approach.  New Horizons is often erroneously given the title of Fastest Spacecraft Ever Launched, when in fact the Helios probes are the holders of that title. To be more specific New Horizons achieved the highest launch velocity and thus left Earth faster than any other spacecraft to date. It is also the first spacecraft launched directly into a solar escape trajectory, which requires an approximate velocity of 16.5 km/s (36,900 mph), plus losses, all to be provided by the launcher. In January 2007 New Horizon’s speed was increased by a gravity assist from Jupiter sending it hurtling towards Pluto at 8,900 mph faster.  However due to the gravitation influence of the Sun even at that distance the craft has slowed as it progresses towards Pluto.  New Horizon’s is now closer to Pluto than any previous spacecraft has been, the next significant event in the journey won’t occur until August 2014 when it will cross Neptune’s orbit. Flyby of Pluto will occur in July 2015 when all the science instruments will be pointed at the planet to gather as much information as possible.

After the successful completion of the primary mission to Pluto the craft may approach other Kuiper belt objects before leaving the Solar System in 2029.

Follow New Horizon’s progress at it’s website.

Juno

The last spacecraft we will look at today is the newest craft Juno, launched in August 2011 the craft began a five year journey to Jupiter to explore the origin and evolution of Jupiter.  Expected to arrive in July 2018 the craft will then orbit Jupiter 33 times gathering information about the amount of water in it’s atmosphere, measure the composition, temperature, cloud motions of the giant planet.  Map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravity fields and explore the magnetosphere near the the planet’s poles.

Follow Juno’s progress at it’s website.