Voyager 1 Spacecraft Enters New Region of Solar System

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Voyager 1 is in uncharted territory. The long-lived spacecraft has entered a new region of space that lies between where our solar system ends and where interstellar space begins. This area is not a place of sightseeing however, as a NASA press release referred to it as a kind of “cosmic purgatory.”

Here, the solar winds ebb somewhat, the magnetic field increases and charged particles from within our solar system – is leaking out into interstellar space. This data has been compiled from information received from Voyager 1 over the course of the last year.

The Voyager spacecraft's compliment of scientific instruments have provided scientists back on Earth with information about what the space environment at the fringes of our sun's influence is truly like. Image Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech

“Voyager tells us now that we’re in a stagnation region in the outermost layer of the bubble around our solar system,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Voyager is showing that what is outside is pushing back. We shouldn’t have long to wait to find out what the space between stars is really like.”

Despite the fact that Voyager 1 is approximately 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) distant from the sun – it still has not encounter interstellar space. The information that scientists have gleaned from the Voyager 1 spacecraft indicates that the spacecraft is still located within the heliosphere. The heliosphere is a “bubble” of charged particles that the sun blows around itself and its retinue of planets.

Voyager 1 has traveled far past the realm of the gas or even ice giants and is now in uncharted territory where scientists are learning more and more about the dynamic environment at the far-flung edges of our solar system. Image Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech

The latest findings were made using Voyager’s Low Energy Charged Particle instrument, Cosmic Ray Subsystem and Magnetometer.

Experts are not certain how long it will take the Voyager 1 spacecraft to finally breach this bubble and head out into interstellar space. Best estimates place the length of time when this could happen anywhere from the next few months – to years. These findings counter findings announced in April of 2010 that showed that Voyager 1 had essentially crossed the heliosphere boundary. The discoveries made during the past year hint that this region of space is far more dynamic than previously thought.

Voyager 1 has entered into a region of space between the sun's influence and the beginning of interstellar space that NASA has dubbed the "stagnation region." Image Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech

The magnetometer aboard Voyager 1 has picked up an increase in the intensity of the magnetic field located within this “stagnation field.” Essentially the inward pressure from interstellar space is compressing the magnetic field to twice its original density. The spacecraft has also detected a 100-fold increase in the intensity of high-energy electrons diffusing into our solar system from outside – this is yet another indicator that Voyager 1 is approaching the heliosphere.

The interplanetary probe was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Sept. 5, 1977, Voyager 1’s sister ship, Voyager 2 is also in good health and is about 9 billion miles (15 billion kilometers) from the sun (it too was launched in 1977). The spacecraft itself was built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“Voyager is a mission of discovery and it’s at the edge of the solar system still making discoveries,” said Stone said. “The stagnation is the latest in the whole journey of discovery. We are all excited because we believe it means we’re getting very close to boundary of heliosphere and the entry into interstellar space.”

Both of the Voyager spacecraft were thrust to orbit by the powerful Titan boosters - and both in the same year - 1977. Photo Credit: NASA

Commander of Final Shuttle Mission to Leave NASA

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On Dec. 9, 2011, NASA will witness the departure of the astronaut who served as commander for the final space shuttle mission STS-135. Chris Ferguson has announced his plans to retire from the space agency so that he can enter the private sector. With Ferguson’s departure, all of the commanders who flew the final three shuttle missions have left or will be departing NASA.

With no defined human space flight mission objectives in place and with the only ride to space currently being Russia’s Soyuz Spacecraft many astronauts are leaving the agency for other prospects. The space agency is losing an astronaut at the rate of one astronaut every two months. As of Dec. 9 NASA will have 58 astronauts in its active roster.

Ferguson has flown into space, twice on space shuttle Atlantis, logging over 40 days in space. Photo Credit: NASA.gov

Ferguson is a retired U.S. Navy captain – his command of Atlantis’ final flight marked his third trip into space. The 13-day mission was a resupply flight to the International Space Station and saw some 10,000 pounds of supplies and spare parts delivered to the orbiting outpost. With the final landing, conducted on July 21, 2011, Ferguson and his crew wrapped up the shuttle program’s 30 year history.

“Chris has been a great friend, a tremendous professional and an invaluable asset to the NASA team and the astronaut office,” said Peggy Whitson, chief of the Astronaut Office. “His exceptional leadership helped ensure a perfect final flight of the space shuttle,
a fitting tribute to the thousands who made the program possible.”

Ferguson (third from left) has opted to leave NASA to pursue a job in the private sector. His departure comes at a time when NASA is losing many of its experienced space flyers. Image Credit: NASA.gov

Ferguson’s very first mission, STS-115, was also on Atlantis. He served as the pilot on this mission which took place in 2006 and delivered the P3 and P4 truss segments to the space station. His next shuttle flight was STS-126 on shuttle Endeavour, this mission saw water reclamation and habitation systems transported to the ISS (as well as conducting a crew swap out). Ferguson has over 40 days of space flight experience.

Ferguson joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 1998. Upon his completion of initial astronaut training, he performed technical duties related to the shuttle’s main engines (SSMEs), the orbiter’s large, orange external tank, solid rocket boosters (SRBs) as well as software utilized on the shuttles. Before he was given the nod to be the commander of STS-135, Ferguson was the deputy chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center located in Houston, Texas.

“Chris has been a true leader at NASA,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, “not just as a commander of the space shuttle, but also as an exemplary civil servant, a distinguished Navy officer and a good friend. I am confident he will succeed in his next career as he brings his skill and talents to new endeavors.”

Chris Ferguson has served NASA in a variety of roles since being accepted as an astronaut in 1998. Photo Credit: NASA.gov

X-37B – The Gift That Keeps On Giving


Video provided courtesy of United Launch Alliance

The United States Air Force’s second flight of the X-37B – is headed into extra innings. Known as the Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV-2) this robotic mini space shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Mar. 5, 2011. Although the U.S. Air Force has kept mum regarding details about the space plane’s mission – it has announced that the OTV-2 has exceeded its endurance limit of 270 days on orbit as of the end of November.

The OTV is launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rocket. The space plane is protected within a fairing until it reaches orbit. After separation, the diminutive shuttle begins its mission.

OTV mission USA-226, as it is officially known, is by all accounts going smoothly and the spacecraft is reported to be in good health. The U.S. Air Force has not announced when OTV-2 will be directed to land.

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The fact that the space plane will continue to orbit beyond what its stated limits are highlights that the OTV has greater capabilities than what was officially announced. The first OTV flight launched in April of 2011 and landed 224 days later at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The U.S. Air Force is undoubtedly being more judicious with fuel stores on board the robotic spacecraft, allowing for a longer duration flight.

Much like NASA’s retired fleet of space shuttle orbiters, the OTV has a payload bay that allows for payloads and experiments to be conducted on-orbit. What payloads the U.S. Air Force has had on either mission – remains a secret.

Boeing has announced that the X-37B could be modified to conduct crewed missions to and from orbit. Tentatively named the X-37C, this spacecraft would be roughly twice the size of its unmanned cousin. If this variant goes into service it would be used to transport astronauts to and from the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

OTV USA-226 launched on Mar. 5, 2011 and has helped prove out the mini space plane's design. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

The X-37B has become a bit controversial of late. Members of the Chinese press have stated that the space plane raises concerns of an arms race in space. Xinhua News Agency and China Daily have expressed concern that the OTVs could be used to deliver weapons to orbit. The Pentagon has flatly denied these allegations. The clandestine nature of these flights have led to a wide variety of theories as to what the OTVs have been used to ferry to orbit.

Empowering Curiosity, Numerous Systems Required to Land Martian Rover


Launch video provided courtesy of United Launch Alliance

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – It is a mission years in the making. However, it would not be possible without the hard work of an army’s worth of engineers – and the systems that they built. How many different systems and engines are required to get the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover named Curiosity to the surface of the Red Planet? The answer might surprise you.

Including the two engines that are part of the Atlas V 541 launch vehicle, it will take 50 different engines and thrusters in total to work perfectly to successfully deliver Curiosity to the dusty plains of Mars.

Starting with the launch vehicle itself, there are six separate engines that power the six-wheeled rover, safely ensconced in its fairing, out of Earth’s gravity well. For the first leg of the journey four powerful Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) provided by Aerojet (each of these provides 400,000 lbs of thrust) will launch the rover out of Earth’s atmosphere.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas launch vehicle has two rocket engines that provide the remaining amount of thrust required to get MSL to orbit and send the rover on its way to Mars. The first is the Russian-built RD-180 engine (whose thrust is split between two engine bells) the second is the Centaur second stage. There are four Aerojet solid rocket motors that help the booster and Centaur upper stage to separate.

The Centaur’s trajectory is controlled by both thrust vector control of the main engine as well as a Reaction Control System or RCS comprised of liquid hydrazine propulsion systems (there are twelve roll control thrusters on the Centaur upper stage).

MSL’s cruise stage separates entirely from the Centaur upper stage and is on the long road to the Red Planet. The cruise stage has eight one-pound-thrust hydrazine thrusters that are used for trajectory maneuvers for the nine-month journey to Mars. These are used for minor corrections to keep the spacecraft on the correct course.

Curiosity’s first physical encounter with the Martian environment is referred to as Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) – more commonly known as “six minutes of terror” – the point when mission control, back on Earth, loses contact with the spacecraft as it enters the Martian atmosphere.


Video courtesy of Lockheed Martin

Even though Mars only has roughly one percent of Earth’s atmosphere, the friction of the atmosphere caused by a spacecraft impacting it at 13,200 miles per hour (about 5,900 meters per second) – is enough to melt Curiosity if it were exposed to these extremes. The heat shield, located at the base of the cruise stage, prevents this from happening.

The heat shield, provided by Lockheed-Martin, on MSL’s cruise stage is 14.8 feet (4.5 meters) in diameter. By comparison, the heat shields that were used on the Apollo manned missions to the Moon were 13 feet (4 meters) in diameter and the ones that allowed the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity to safely reach the surface of Mars were 8.7 feet (2.65 meters) in diameter.

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At this point in the mission eight engines, each providing 68 pounds of thrust come into play. These engines provide all of the trajectory control during EDL – meaning they will fire almost continuously.

Shortly thereafter – BOOM – the parachute deploy. Then the heat shield is ejected. After the parachute slow the spacecraft down to a sufficient degree, both they and the back aeroshell depart leaving just the rover and its jet pack.

Curiosity will employ a very unique method to touch down on Mars. What is essentially a jet-pack, called the SkyCrane will be used to allow the rover to hover in mid-air as it is lowered via cables to the ground. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

During the landing phase the “SkyCrane” comes alive with eight powerful hydrazine engines, each of which give Curiosity 800 pounds of thrust. Aerojet’s Redmond Site Executive, Roger Myers, talked a bit about this segment of the landing, considered by many to be the most dramatic method of getting a vehicle to the surface of Mars.

“Because of the control requirements for the SkyCrane these engines had to be very throttleable,” Myers said. “Keeping the SkyCrane level is a must, you must have very fine control of those engines to ensure stability.”

Although the SkyCrane is often highlighted as an aspect that will add complexity to MSL's mission - there are numerous systems that can cause an early end to the mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

If all has gone well up to this point, the Curiosity rover will be lowered the remaining distance to the ground via cables. Once contact with the Martian surface is detected, the cables are cut, the SkyCrane’s engines throttle up and the jet pack flies off to conduct a controlled crash (approximately a mile or so away from where Curiosity is located).

Every powered landing on Mars conducted in the U.S. unmanned space program has utilized Aerojet’s thrusters. The reliability of these small engines was recently proven – in a mission that is now almost three-and-a-half decades old.

Tucked in between the aeroshell and the heat shield, Curiosity is prepared to take the long trip to the Red Planet. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

Voyager recently conducted a course correction some 34 years after it was launched – highlighting the capability of these thrusters to perform well after launch.

“Our engines have allowed missions to fly to every planet in the solar system and we are currently on our way to Mercury and Pluto,” Myers said. “When NASA explores the solar system – Aerojet provides the propulsion components.”

Hundreds of different components, provided by numerous contractors and sub-contractors all must work perfectly to ensure that the Mars Science Laboratory makes it safely to Mars. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Book Review: Martian Summer

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The Mars Phoenix Lander has long since gone quiet on the frigid, dusty plains of Mars. Its legacy however remains. It will go down as the first mission to land in the Martian Polar Regions, the first to be led primarily by a University.

The University of Arizona took the lead on the mission with Peter Smith being the Mars Phoenix lander’s Principle Investigator or “PI.” Andrew Kessler was brought onto the Phoenix team to help promote Phoenix to the public. It was a controversial decision.

The media, by-and-large tends to focus on accidents, explosions or other failures. Given that Phoenix accomplished its objectives with nary a wrinkle – it is not hard to understand why the media paid it little attention. One need only look at the lander’s cousin, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity – who has been largely forgotten by the press – despite the fact that it has been working on the red planet for the past seven years (even though it was only slated to last 90 days).

The Mars Phoenix Lander thundered off of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 17 in the summer of 2007. About nine months later - it landed on the surface of Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

One of the things that no media outlet wants to see is one of their employees repeatedly make what are known as “fact errors.” These can be as large as gross misrepresentations, or in this case, as small as not knowing the correcting spelling or pronunciation of an individual’s name. In this case, it was someone well-known in “space” circles, Keith Cowing — not “Cowling” as the author repeatedly states – even in the book’s index. Kessler could have easily verified the correct spelling by going to NASAWatch.com or by picking up a copy of New Moon Rising. Apparently he did neither.

The importance of this is simple. If he got something this simple wrong, what about the larger topics the book discusses? The author was sure to mention that his work has appeared on The Discovery Channel and The New York Times. One would think such respectable media outlets would ensure journalists made sure their work was free of fact-errors, especially since a portion of the book is spent assailing the work of other journalists.

Phoenix became the first spacecraft to be imaged in the process of landing on another world. This picture clearly captures the lander, still in its aeroshell, under parachute and on its way to the ground. This picture was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

One might ask, “Why so harsh?” Simply put, Kessler has massive potential. His writing style is easy to read and is perfectly suited for the general public. Kessler is a great writer and makes a complex subject accessible to all. He also makes it interesting, adding personal reflections and witticisms that other authors don’t. But glaring errors has the reader wondering about the author’s veracity.

But in Martian Summer, Kessler does provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what was going on during his time with the Mars Phoenix Lander project. It highlights the difficulties involved with mastering numerous skills required to reach another world. More importantly, it opens the door to the sheer wonder of it all.

Mars Phoenix Lander's landing site at the Martian North Pole. The inset image was taken by MRO some time after the lander fell silent. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Martian Summer is published by Pegasus Books and it weighs in at 352 pages (with 16 of them filled with color images). It details how Phoenix rose up out of the ashes that was the Mars Polar Lander and would go on to discover what may be an ocean of ice under the Martian North Pole. Phoenix was the first spacecraft to be imaged as it landed on the surface of another world. In all, it was an amazing mission that was supposed to last for 90 Martian “sols” – but went on to work for 155 sols.

Kessler works to remind us of the magic of spaceflight and exploration in a manner we can all understand. If you want an accurate scientific description – you won’t find it here (Kessler says so himself in the Author’s Note). What you will find is a peek behind the curtain at what makes a mission to Mars work – in all of its quirky glory.

NASA is currently planning to launch the next mission to Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory or MSL, next week on Nov. 25 at 10:21 a.m. EDT. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Massive Motion – NASA’s Mobile Launcher Moves to Launch Pad

Video of Mobile Launcher on its move out to Launch Complex 39B courtesy of Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – NASA decided that its Mobile Launcher (ML) needed a bit of a shakedown cruise – so it took it on a trip to Launch Complex – 39B (LC-39B). Along the way it stopped and reviewed data as to how the massive tower fared as it lumbered along at the blistering pace of a mile-an-hour. This does not make for riveting must-see video – unless you speed it up.

In the roughly minute-long video the ML moves along at a (somewhat) faster pace. The ML is part of the space agency’s plans to return NASA to the business of space exploration once again. If all goes according to plan, the ML will be the platform used to launch NASA’s Space Launch System or SLS.

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As with so many aspects of space exploration, there is a type of art that flows from even the least aesthetic blocky components that are used to lift Heaven and Earth. For those with the right eye, even a metallic tower has a beauty all its own.

That is exactly what aerospace photographer Alan Walters does – find the path to let an object’s inner beauty shine through. The burly photographer has an artist’s eye and loves sharing the awe of all manners of space flight and spacecraft processing.

On Wednesday one of the most emotional aspects of the journey to the launch pad – was the resemblance of some of the images – to those shot during the Apollo era. This imagery could well be prescient as NASA is passing the responsibility of delivering crew and cargo to the International Space Station to commercial space firms as it turns its focus on launching crews to points beyond low-Earth-orbit.

In an image that is eerily similar to shots taken during the moonshots of the late 1960s and early 1970s NASA's Mobile Launcher moves out to Launch Complex-39B on Nov. 16, 2011. Photo Credit: Alan walters/awaltersphoto.com

The ML moved from next to Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to LC-39B to collect data from structural and functional engineering tests. Any relevant data that is gleaned from the journey will be used to modify the ML. The 355-foot-tall ML is being developed to support NASA’s exploration objectives.

“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the move,” Walters said. “After the thing got moving, I began having Apollo flashbacks and I got more and more into photographing and getting video of this event. It made me hopeful about what we might be seeing fly out of Kennedy (Space Center) in the years to come.”

Spiraling upward into the sky, the Mobile Launcher rises some 355 feet into the air and could one day be the platform from which astronauts launch to visit other worlds. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Want To Fly In Space? NASA Looking For More of the “Right Stuff”

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NASA is looking for folks with the “right stuff.” The space agency is seeking qualified individuals for when the space agency once again travels into space – and beyond low-Earth-orbit. The announcement of NASA’s process for selecting its next class of astronauts was made at an event held at the Webb auditorium at NASA Headquarters located in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, Nov. 15.

At this event was NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Assistant Administrator for Human Capital Jeri Buchholz, Flight Crew Operations Director Janet Kavandi as well as five members of the 2009 astronaut class. They were Serena Aunon, Kjell Lindgren, Kathleen Rubins, Scott Tingle and Mark Vande Hei.

NASA is currently attempting to hand off providing access to low-Earth-orbit or LEO as it attempts to send astronauts beyond LEO for the first time in four decades. Photo Credit: jeff Soulliere

“For 50 years, American astronauts have led the exploration of our solar system,” Bolden said. “Today we are getting a glimpse of why that will remain true for the next half-century. Make no mistake about it, human space flight is alive and well at NASA.”
Bolden is a former shuttle astronaut himself, having flown into space four times.

The 2009 class of astronauts – was the first to graduate in a new era of space flight – one which would eventually see the retirement of NASA’s fleet of space shuttle orbiters. NASA is currently working to develop not only a new spacecraft – but a new launch vehicle as well. The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle or Orion MPCV may one day ferry astronauts to points beyond LEO.

With NASA's fleet of shuttle orbiters on their separate ways to various museums across the country, NASA is currently lacking the capacity to launch astronauts on its own and is dependent on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. Photo Credit: Jeff Soulliere

To get the Orion MPCV to orbit the space agency is developing the Space Launch System or SLS. This launch vehicle, resembling a cross between the space transportation system (STS) that comprised the shuttle – and the Saturn V moon rocket was recently unveiled by the space agency.

As far as access to LEO is concerned, NASA is working to hand those responsibilities over to commercial space firms such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Boeing. These companies will also work to deliver crew and cargo to the orbiting International Space Station (ISS). If it all works out these new astronauts could well be among the first to return the U.S. to the Moon or be the first person to visit an asteroid or even Mars.

The astronaut's selected in this process could very well be the first astronauts to land on an asteroid - or even the planet Mars. Photo Credit: Jeff Soulliere

The Astronaut Candidate Program is open to any person that meets the agency’s qualifications. They can submit their applications online through the USAJobs.gov website. For those considering a career in the astronaut corps, here are some of the requirements:

• Bachelor’s Degree in either science, engineering or math
• Three years of relevant professional experience
• Experience in flying high-performance jet aircraft is considered a plus
• Educators that have taught grades kindergarten through the 12 are highly encouraged to apply

NASA will be accepting applications through January 27, 2012. The agency will bring in applicants to be interviewed and evaluated. NASA plans to make their final decision in 2013 – with training of these new astronauts starting that summer.

NASA has been working to see that the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle or Orion MPCV is ready in time for deep space missions. Photo Credit: NASA.gov

Orion Spacecraft to Launch in 2014

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – NASA has announced its intention to launch an unmanned flight of the Orion Spacecraft atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle – by 2014. This flight test will be added to the contract that the space agency has with aerospace firm Lockheed Martin. The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle or Orion MPCV as it is more commonly known – will test out systems that will be employed on the Space Launch System (SLS). If successful, this will allow astronauts to travel beyond low-Earth-orbit (LEO) for the first time in over four decades.

“This flight test will provide invaluable data to support the deep space exploration missions this nation is embarking upon,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver.

The flight has been dubbed Exploration Flight Test or EFT-1 and will be comprised of two high-apogee orbits that will conclude with a high-energy reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules before it, the Orion MPCV will conduct a water landing.

The test mission will lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station located in Florida. It is designed to provide the space agency with vital flight data regarding how the vehicle handles re-entry and other performance issues.

The test flight will be comprised of two high-apogee orbits followed by a splash down. This flight will provide NASA with crucial information that could potentially lead to changes in the Orion spacecraft's design. Image Credit: NASA

“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,” said Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William
Gerstenmaier. “This test is very important to the detailed design process in terms of the data we expect to receive.”

Presumably the use of a Delta IV Heavy would allow NASA to accelerate its human exploration objectives at an accelerated rate. Since the flight will be unmanned, there is no need to man-rate the launch vehicle and given the current economic issues facing the United States, the use of so-called “legacy” hardware could ensure that costs are kept down.

The past year has seen the development of the Orion spacecraft proceed at an accelerated pace. Photo Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

NASA has also stated its intention to release competitive solicitations for design proposals for new, advanced liquid or solid boosters to be used on the SLS. Another contract that will be opened for competition will be for payload adaptors for both crewed as well as cargo missions.

The Orion spacecraft was originally part of the Constellation Program. Its design has since been modified – but its mission to one day fly astronauts to the Moon, Mars and beyond – remains. The EFT-1 test flight will allow technicians and NASA officials to better determine what further changes need to be made to best aid the completion of NASA’s exploration goals.

The EFT-1 test flight could pave the way for flights back to the Moon, to the planet Mars and to other destinations throughout the solar system. Image Credit: NASA.gov

ASF 2011 Autograph Show: To Be the Shoulders of Tomorrow’s Titans

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla – Every year the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF) hosts its “Astronaut Autograph Show” at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This year it was held on Nov. 5-6 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex’s Debus Center. The ASF coordinated with the operators of the Cocoa Beach Air Show to ensure that the show had a very dramatic ending. Continue reading “ASF 2011 Autograph Show: To Be the Shoulders of Tomorrow’s Titans”

Star Lab: Space Science on the Wings of Starfighters

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – A NewSpace company based out of New Port Richey in Florida is working to provide suborbital access to space for firms with scientific payloads. The Star Lab project is an experimental suborbital launcher, designed to provide frequent, less expensive access to sub-orbit. This could allow educational and scientific institutions across the nation to conduct experiments that would normally be impractical.

“If Star Lab proves itself viable, as we feel it will, this could open the door to a great many scientific institutions conducting their research by using the Star Lab vehicle,” said Mark Homnick the CEO of 4Frontiers Corporation.

On Oct. 27th, the Star Lab launcher was tested out while attached to the F-104 carrier aircraft via a series of fast-taxis up and down NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility located in Florida. Photo Credit: NASA.gov

4Frontiers is working to launch their Star Lab sounding rocket vehicle into sub-orbital space via an F-104 Starfighter that is part of the Starfighters demo team based out of Kennedy Space Center. 4Frontiers hopes to launch a prototype early next year with commercial flights to follow about six months later.

On Thursday Oct. 27, Star Lab began the first of its tests as it was mounted to a F-104 Starfighter and the aircraft then conducted several fast-taxi runs up and down NASA’s Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) with the Star Lab vehicle affixed to one of its pylons. On the last of these fast taxis, the jet aircraft deployed its drogue chute. These maneuvers were conducted to collect data to test the Star Lab vehicle’s response.

In terms of providing access to space, compared to more conventional means, the Star Lab project is considered to be an innovative and cost-effective means for scientific firms to test their experiments in the micro-gravity environment. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

The Star Lab suborbital vehicle is an air-launched sounding rocket, which is designed to be reusable and can reach a maximum altitude of about 120km.

The Star Lab vehicle carrying scientific payloads is launched from the venerable F-104 Starfighter jet. After the Star Lab payload stage reaches its predetermined altitude, it will descend by parachute into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. Star Lab is capable of carrying up to 13 payloads per flight.

Members of the Starfighters Demo Team along with technicians working on the Star Lab program work to attach the vehicle to the F-104 Starfighter. Photo Credit: Star Lab

All of these payloads will have access to the outside, sub-orbital space environment. One payload on each mission will be deployable by way of an ejectable nosecone on the Star Lab vehicle. 4Frontiers Corporation will handle integrating the payloads into the vehicle. After the craft splashes down, private recovery teams will collect and return it to 4Frontiers. It in turn will have the payloads off-loaded and the Star Lab vehicle will then be reprocessed for its next mission.

“Today, 4Frontiers and Starfighters, with the assistance of the Florida Space Grant Consortium, unveiled to the public for the first time the Star Lab suborbital project. Star Lab is an air-launched reusable sounding vehicle, built using COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) technology and able to reach altitudes of up to 120km,” said 4Frontiers’ Business Development Manager Panayot Slavov. “With its very reasonable price structure, frequent flight schedule and numerous educational and research opportunities, the vehicle and the project will turn into the suborbital research platform of choice for all those who are interested in experimenting and learning about suborbital space.”

The project was created through a cooperative agreement between the 4Frontiers Corporation, Starfighters Aerospace, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Central Florida with funding provided by the NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium.

If all goes according to plan firms wanting to send their payloads into suborbit could achieve this goal via the Star Lab project. Photo Credit: Starfighters Aerospace