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Thursday, July 26, 2012

What's Up in Space

NASA's SLS Rocket System Passes Concept Step

SLS transportation system concepts.

Today marks an important step in NASA's plan to replace the Space Shuttle as the nation's primary space exploration vehicle. According to NASA reports, the SLS (Space Launch System) program has passed all the necessary milestones to move from the concept phase to the actual design phase. The next major milestone will be a design review later next year. Actually, spacecraft components for the system are already in material assembly and testing, such as the Orion capsule, and the core stage (Boeing) and upper stage engines. ATK in Brigham City, Utah (Yay!) is testing the solid rocket boosters ahead of time. The first test launch is scheduled for 2017.
Keep in mind that the SLS is NOT meant to replace the shuttle's use as a transportation system transferring astronauts back and forth from the International Space Station. NASA (and space exploration fans) are pinning their hopes on privatized commercial transportations systems (such as SpaceX's Dragon or ATK's Liberty) to provide that function. SLS would only be used in that purpose in the case of an emergency. 
The purpose for SLS is to provide a heavier lift system to move astronauts into exploration beyond Earth's orbit. Under the Obama Administration's plans, NASA is exploring possibilities of sending astronauts to explore asteroids and prepare for future Mars exploration. The are also many who would like a return to the Moon for further exploration and development of mining opportunities.
Opinion: Overall, there is much that is similar between this design and the cancelled Constellation program design. One has to wonder at the political maneuverings that took place to cancel the Bush administration's exploration plan (admittedly underfunded and late) and the commencement of a bigger, more expensive Obama-administration design (which will no doubt end up underfunded, and late). Only time will tell. But I am pleased to see actual progress in a system that I think the nation needs for exploring anywhere beyond Low Earth Orbit.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Astronaut Sally Ride passes away

Astronaut Sally Ride in space on Shuttle Challenger.

Sally Ride, America's first woman astronaut in space, passed away yesterday at age 61, from a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.  Not only an astronaut, but a brilliant scientist also, Sally Ride inspired millions with her journey to space and her continuing work afterwards to interest girls and women in science and space exploration.

Challenger blasts off on June 18, 1983.

Her first, and historic, spaceflight was on space shuttle Challenger on mission STS-7, which launched from Kennedy Space Center on June 18, 1983. On that mission, as a Mission Specialist she helped deploy two satellites into orbit and conducted a series of science experiments. That mission lasted six days.
Her second flight was on mission STS-41G in 1984. During that 8-day flight, the crew deployed the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, and tested satellite refueling and made Earth observations. Although she was assigned to a third mission, the Challenger explosion occurred. She was assigned to the accident investigation board. After that assignment, she accepted a position to help the NASA administrator with long range planning. After leaving NASA, she was recalled to participate in the AUgustine commission, which investigated NASA's future space flight options in 2009, and resulted in the cancellation of the Constellation program. She was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame and received a long list of awards and honors.

Progress re-docking suffers a glitch

Progress M-15M seen during docking.

On July 22, ground controllers in Russia remotely undocked the Progress M-15m (US designation 47P) cargo spacecraft from the ISS Pirs Module. The idea was to test a new "Kurs" automated rendezvous and docking system. However, something went wrong. It may have something to do with the new antennae used in the system. In any case, the re-docking effort was postponed while new procedures are considered. Another reason for the delay is that the ISS is expecting a visitor, the HTV-3 cargo spacecraft recently launched by Japan, which is expected to dock with the station on Friday. Completing that maneuver, the flight engineers will attempt again to re-dock the Progress spacecraft. 
Progress M-15M has been docked with the ISS for three months now, and having delivered its supplies, it is now used as a giant and expensive trash container. When its usefulness has expired, it will be undocked and re-entered to burn up in the atmosphere.

NASA works on new Re-Entry designs

Inflatable heat shield in test chamber.

On Monday, NASA successfully tested a new design in heat shield technology. Launched from Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia, the IRVE-3 (Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment-3) sounding rocket took off and reached 280 miles over the Atlantic Ocean. The payload then separated and the HIAD (Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator) was inflated with nitrogen gas.

IRVE-3 launches from Wallops Island, VA.

Screaming back through the Earth's atmosphere at 7,600 mph, the shield inflated to 10 feet in diameter and approached temperatures expected during a typical reentry from space. Parachuting into the ocean, the package was recovered and scientists began studying the data retrieved. The entire flight lasted only about 20 minutes. The science learned from these tests will help NASA make newer, better, and safer reentry shields for future space missions.

Orion parachutes deploying.

In a completely separate test, NASA engineers in Arizona completed another successful test of the parachute recovery system that will be used with the Orion space capsule. An Air Force C-17 cargo plane dropped the capsule from an altitude of 25,000 feet above the desert. This Orion was a capsule mockup, designed to have the shape and size of the eventual capsule and filled with special sensors to monitor everything related to the deceleration and impact landing. The recovery system will be used in an actual test mission from space in 2014.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Japan launches Supply Spacecraft to ISS

H-2B F3 blasts off from Japan. Credit: JAXA.

Japan sent an H-2B rocket into space this morning, lifting the Kounotori-3 cargo space craft into orbit. The cargo vessel is the HTV-3, robotically controlled cargo spacecraft designed by Japan to transfer needed supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. The launch took place at the Tanegashima Space Center located on Tanegashima Island just south of the mainland of Japan.
The weather at the center was a bit for the worse, with rain and a slight wind. The flight seems to have gone well, and the Kounotori-3 is expected to reach the ISS on July 27th. Currently, Japanese astronaut   Akihiko Hoshide (just arrived on Soyuz TMA-05M) is performing duties as a Flight Engineer on board the ISS. The HTV-3 cargo craft is carrying over 4 tons of equipment including several small satellites which will be launched into orbit from the ISS.
Akihiko Hoshide.

Astronaut Hoshide first flew into space on board Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-124 in 2008. On that mission, he used the station's robotic arm to move the Japanese station module JEM-PM and attach it to the station. During his 13 days at the station he worked with other astronauts to outfit the module and prepare it for science work at the ISS., Currently, he is part of the second "shift" of the Expedition 32 astronauts living and working on the station.

50 Years Ago: Mission Control Center future announced

MSC under construction in Houston, 1962.

We're all so familiar with the phrase, "Houston, the Eagle Has Landed." And certainly, "Houston, we have a problem!" Forty-three years ago, Neil Armstrong proudly proclaimed that first phrase as the lunar module of Apollo 11 touched down on the surface of the Moon. On this day, July 21st, he and Buzz Aldrin walked on the dusty surface and communicated with the flight controllers back on Earth, at Houston. In 1970 astronaut Jim Lovell uttered the second phrase which made everyone at Houston (and the world) hold their breath as the astronauts tried to fix their critically broken Apollo 13 spacecraft and return to Earth.
On July 20, 1962, NASA Administrator James Webb made a public announcement that future space manned missions would be controlled from the Manned Space Center being built at Houston, Texas.
James Webb, NASA Administrator 1961-1968.

The MSC (not yet named for upcoming President Johnson) would be the flight control for missions in the planned Gemini and Apollo space programs. Still under construction, Webb promised the entire complex of communications, computers, control rooms, simulators, and other facilities would be ready by 1964. For the time being, mission operations were being controlled from control rooms and launch bunkers at the Cape Canaveral US Air Force station.
Also on July 21, NASA selected final designs for the Advanced Saturn launch complex facilities under construction just north of Cape Canaveral launch pads. This area would eventually be dedicated as the Kennedy Space Center, but in 1962 they were just starting to build the complex.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

ISS: The next shift arrives

Soyuz TMA-05M on approach to the station.

At 10:51 p.m. MDT Monday night, a Soyuz spacecraft carrying the second half of the Expedition 32 crew arrived at the International Space Station. The spacecraft launched two days early from Baikonur in Kazakhstan commanded by cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, accompanied by NASA astronaut Suni WIlliams and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide.

Astronaut Hoshide is welcomed by the prime crew of Expedition 32.

The hatches opened on the Russian Rassvet module and the three newcomers joined Cosmonauts Gennady Padalka, Sergei Revin, and astronaut Joe Acaba. Interestingly, the docking took place on the 36th anniversary of the famous first docking of an Apollo spacecraft with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 1975.

Current locations of several docked spacecraft. reports that there were several maintenance issues with a couple other spacecraft docked with ISS. One of the cabin air fans on the European ATV-3 cargo ship has malfunctioned, requiring replacement. On the Russian cargo ship Progress-15M, there was a temporary failure to transfer fuel from the spacecraft to the Russian Zarya module. The problem seemed to have been a computer problem, which was resolved and the operation completed. Progress-15M is expected to undock on July 30 to make way for the next Progress resupply mission.
By Mark Daymont
Space Center Educator

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