Breaking the Speed of Light

Particle Collider
Today, CERN announced that the LHCb experiment had revealed the existence of two new baryon subatomic particles. Credit: CERN/LHC/GridPP


It’s been a tenet of the standard model of physics for over a century. The speed of light is a unwavering and unbreakable barrier, at least by any form of matter and energy we know of. Nothing in our Universe can travel faster than 299,792 km/s (186,282 miles per second), not even – as the term implies – light itself. It’s the universal constant, the “c” in Einstein’s E = mc2, a cosmic speed limit that can’t be broken.

That is, until now.

An international team of scientists at the Gran Sasso research facility outside of Rome announced today that they have clocked neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. The neutrinos, subatomic particles with very little mass, were contained within beams emitted from CERN 730 km (500 miles) away in Switzerland. Over a period of three years, 15,000 neutrino beams were fired from CERN at special detectors located deep underground at Gran Sasso. Where light would have made the trip in 2.4 thousandths of a second, the neutrinos made it there 60 nanoseconds faster – that’s 60 billionths of a second – a tiny difference to us but a huge difference to particle physicists!

The implications of such a discovery are staggering, as it would effectively undermine Einstein’s theory of relativity and force a rewrite of the Standard Model of physics.

The OPERA Neutrino Detector. Credit: LGNS.

“We are shocked,” said project spokesman and University of Bern physicist Antonio Ereditato.

“We have high confidence in our results. We have checked and rechecked for anything that could have distorted our measurements but we found nothing. We now want colleagues to check them independently.”

Neutrinos are created naturally from the decay of radioactive materials and from reactions that occur inside stars. Neutrinos are constantly zipping through space and can pass through solid material easily with little discernible effect… as you’ve been reading this billions of neutrinos have already passed through you!

The experiment, called OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) is located in Italy’s Gran Sasso facility 1,400 meters (4,593 feet) underground and uses a complex array of electronics and photographic plates to detect the particle beams. Its subterranean location helps prevent experiment contamination from other sources of radiation, such as cosmic rays. Over 750 scientists from 22 countries around the world work there.

Ereditato is confident in the results as they have been consistently measured in over 16,000 events over the past two years. Still, other experiments are being planned elsewhere in an attempt to confirm these remarkable findings. If they are confirmed, we may be looking at a literal breakdown of the modern rules of physics as we know them!

“We have high confidence in our results,” said Ereditato. “We have checked and rechecked for anything that could have distorted our measurements but we found nothing. We now want colleagues to check them independently.”

A preprint of the OPERA results will be posted on the physics website

Read more on the Nature article here and on

UPDATE: The OPERA team paper can be found here.



SpaceX to Dock With ISS on Next Flight: NASA Maybe – Russia Nyet

Russia has again stated that doea not approve of SpaceX and NASA's plans to dock the next Dragon Spacecraft with the International Space Station. Image Credit: SpaceX


It is looking less likely that Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) will be allowed to dock the next of its Dragon Spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). Instead it is now looking like the Dragon will be allowed to only come close the orbiting outpost to test out many of the spacecraft’s key systems.

This comes from a statement issued by Vladimir Solovyov, head of the Russian segment of the ISS mission control center on Friday and posted on the Russian news site RIA Novosti. Up until now SpaceX has stated that they would launch the next Dragon Spacecraft atop one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets on Nov. 30. It is unknown now whether-or-not the proposed docking will be allowed to take place.

SpaceX has had a string of successes - and failures - since its founding in 2002. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/

In a company-prepared statement, SpaceX stated that the company had been working to fulfill all of the necessary requirements to allow SpaceX to become the first private firm to dock its spacecraft with the ISS. Russia, however, has repeatedly stated that it will not allow this. The rationale behind this stance is based on safety. According to Russia, a vehicle, which has only flown once, does not have the established, proven track record required for such operations.

Moreover both NASA and SpaceX stated that while a final determination has yet to be made – the private space firm has not been denied the opportunity to dock with the International Space Station. Thus leaving the flight’s status in a sort of limbo. This situation also highlights that the assorted international members involved on ISS – don’t always agree.

Russia's most recent attempt to launch its unmanned Progress Spacecraft ended in the loss of the spacecraft as well as its cargo. Photo Credit: RSC Energia

Many industry experts noted the irony of these statements given that the last Soyuz rocket failed, causing the destruction of the Progress spacecraft as well as the three tons of supplies that the spacecraft carried.

NewSpace firms themselves have acknowledged anomalies in their programs – including SpaceX. Blue Origin recently lost one of its test vehicles. Apparently the rocket went off of its predicted flight path and range safety was forced to destroy the vehicle.

Orbital Science's Cygnus Spacecraft is one of the other vehicles being developed under the COTS program. Image Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation

Under the initial Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement SpaceX was supposed to launch the Demo 2 mission, which would have completed COTS Milestone 19 (the mission scheduled for this November) two years ago. Similarly, milestones 20-22 were scheduled to be accomplished by the first quarter of 2010.

COTS is a NASA-funded program, designed to coordinate delivery of both astronauts as well as cargo to the ISS by privately-owned companies. COTS – was announced in January of 2006, under the Bush Administration. As it stands currently, SpaceX is the frontrunner under this contract which also includes Orbital Sciences Corporation.

SLS: NASA’s Next Big Thing

Artist's concept of the new SLS on the launch pad. Credit: NASA


NASA has officially unveiled the plan for their next large-scale rocket: the Space Launch System, or SLS, will provide heavy-lift capabilities for cargo and spacecraft to go beyond low-Earth orbit and is proposed as a safe, sustainable and efficient way to open up the next chapter in US space exploration.

SLS is designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Module, NASA’s next-generation human spaceflight vehicle that is specifically designed for long-duration missions. (Construction of the first space-bound MPCV began last week on September 9.)

Utilizing a modular design that can accommodate varying mission needs, SLS will also be able to provide service to the International Space Station.

“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.”

– NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

SLS will have an initial lift capacity of over 70 metric tons – about 154,000 pounds (70,000 kg). That’s three times the lift capability of the space shuttles! In the event of a Mars mission that can be upgraded to 130 metric tons – about the weight of 75 SUVs.

Artist image of SLS launch. Credit: NASA

The first developmental flight is targeted for the end of 2017.

SLS will be the first exploration-class vehicle since the giant Saturn V rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Using rocket technology developed during the shuttle era and modified for the canceled Constellation program, combined with cutting-edge manufacturing processes, SLS will expand the boundaries of human spaceflight and extend our reach into the solar system.

“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.”

Read the NASA news release here.

(And check out this “Fun Facts” sheet on SLS.)

ATK and Astrium’s Liberty Launcher Added to NASA’s Commercial Crewed Roster

The Liberty launch vehicle, produce by ATK and Astrium, has been added to the fleet of commercial rockets and spacecraft that are being developed for NASA. Image Credit" ATK

[/caption]CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – Liberty has wings. That is to say that the launch vehicle proposed by Alliant Techsystems or ATK as they are more commonly known has been given the green light by NASA – albeit unfunded – as part of a Space Act Agreement. The announcement was made at the Kennedy Space Center press site’s auditorium in Florida Tuesday at 3 p.m. EDT. With ATK’s addition – the fleet of potential spacecraft and launch vehicles could mean that the space agency will not only be able to return to human space flight operations sooner – but with a more diverse range of vehicles to do so as well.

The proposal to use the Liberty launch vehicle, which is comprised of a five-segment solid rocket booster (similar to the four-segment SRB utilized during the shuttle program) and an Ariane V upper stage could reduce the human space flight “gap” that NASA is currently experiencing. As the company that produces the Ariane V, Astrium, is a European firm this deal also works to fulfill the White House’s wishes that space endeavors be conducted on an international level. More importantly – ATK has stated that they could be ready to launch as early as 2015.

Liberty is a combination of so-called "legacy" hardware. The first stage is a modified shuttle Solid Rocket Booster and the upper stage comes from the Ariane V rocket. Image Credit: ATK

After the Ares I launcher was scrapped along with most of the rest of the Constellation Program by the Obama Administration ATK looked into ways to preserve the project. ATK was one of the first to see the commercial crewed writing on the wall and went to work revamping the project. With a far lower cost, international partner and a new paint job – Liberty was born.

The rationale behind why the Liberty announcement was made at KSC – was highlighted by ATK’s Vice-President for Test and Research Operations, Kent Rominger.

“We want to launch Liberty from Kennedy Space Center,” said Rominger. “Our concept of operations is based around KSC assets such as the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Liberty will be processed much in the same manner as the space shuttle was – so KSC is central to Liberty’s operations.”

With the inclusion of Liberty – most elements of the Constellation Program are back in place. Liberty could potentially be the launch vehicle that sends astronauts to orbits, the Space Launch System which closely resembles the Ares V is currently in development, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is still in place as is the Lunar Electric Rover (although it has been renamed the “Space Exploration Vehicle”). The only element that has yet to be resurrected is the over-arching ‘Vision for Space Exploration’ – which directed NASA to go to the “Moon, Mars and Beyond.”

If all works out with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program NASA could see a problem that faced the space agency in the wake of the Challenger and Columbia accidents – erased. After the loss of each of the orbiters NASA was unable to launch astronauts to orbit for a period of roughly two years. With Liberty and man-rated versions of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket – if one of these launch vehicles experienced an in-flight anomaly NASA could simply switch to another launcher while any problem with another rocket is being investigated. This of course depends on whether-or-not NASA receives the funding to accomplish this.

The Liberty rocket has been designed to accomodate a wide-range of potential spacecraft. Image Credit: ATK

ULA Inks Deal With NASA To Study Man-Rating Atlas V

United Launch Alliance and NASA signed into am agreement to research the viability of having the Atlas V rocket potentially be used as a launch vehicle for astronauts. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/


CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. — NASA is looking for a few good rockets – that’s right, plural. While it continues to review the Space Launch System or SLS – it has inked a non-funded agreement with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to utilize the Denver-based firm’s Atlas V rockets to send astronauts into orbit. The announcement was made at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday.

The Space Act Agreement signed by the space agency and ULA will see critical information regarding the flight characteristics of the Atlas V be provided to NASA. ULA will not be alone in providing information however; NASA will give ULA vital data regarding its experience sending humans into orbit as well as guidance as how to adapt the Atlas V for human space flight purposes. NASA will help ULA with both the crew transportation system capabilities as well as the human certification requirements.

This will begin a process where ULA and NASA will work closely with one another to guide the Atlas V toward being man-rated. Before that can happen there are numerous pertinent issues that have to be reviewed first, such as the cost involved and other issues involved with the certification process.

United Launch Alliance will spend its own funds to research how to send astronauts into space via the Atlas V. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/

The Atlas V is an expendable launch vehicle that has not only been used by NASA, but the Department of Defense (DoD) as well. The Atlas’ proven track record should allow a large portion of the study to be completed before the end of this year.

NASA’s part of the arrangement includes providing milestone briefings and technical reviews to check and see how the project is progressing as well as identifying risks and attempting to mitigate them.

ULA meanwhile will use its own funds to pay for the Crew Transportation System (CTS). Design maturation, required analyses (including hazard reviews that are unique to human space flight efforts) as well as establishing a man-rated baseline for the Atlas V all will be handled by United Launch Alliance.

The rationale behind why the Atlas V was specifically selected is simple, both Sierra Nevada Corporation and Blue Origin’s proposals under the Commercial Crew Development – 02 (CCDev-02) contract – utilize the Atlas V. Bigelow Aerospace has also looked at the rocket as a launch service provider.

As seen in this illustration, Sierra Nevada Corporation has intimated that the Atlas V is the launch vehicle of choice for their Dream Chaser space plane. Image Credit: Sierra Nevada

“I am truly excited about the addition of ULA to NASA’s Commercial Crew development Program team,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Having ULA on board may speed the development of a commercial crew transportation system for the International Space Station, allowing NASA to concentrate its resources on exploring beyond low
Earth orbit.”

The Atlas V has had 26 consecutive successful flights, making it an easily one of the front runners to potentially send astronauts to orbit.

“We believe this effort will demonstrate to NASA that our systems are fully compliant with NASA requirements for human spaceflight,” said George Sowers, ULA’s vice president of business development. “ULA looks forward to continued work with NASA to develop a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability providing safe,
reliable, and cost effective access to and return from low Earth orbit and the International Space Station.”

The Atlas V has had 26 consecutive successful flights and is now being viewed as a launch provider for crewed missions. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/

At Shuttle Program’s Twilight, Tears and Cheers as Triumphs and Tragedies are Remembered

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden gets choked up during the 30th anniversary of the shuttle program.


CAPE CANAVERAL – With the shuttle program’s end less than three months away, NASA took time to honor the program that has been the focal point of the agency’s manned space flight efforts for the past thirty years. At 1 p.m., NASA’s Administrator, Charles Bolden, along with Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana, astronaut Janet Kavandi, shuttle Endeavour’s Vehicle Manager Mike Parrish and STS-1 Pilot Robert Crippen spoke to NASA employees and members of the media regarding the programs long history and its many achievements.

However, the most important announcement of the day was where the remaining shuttles will go when the program draws to a close. It was announced that the space shuttle Enterprise, a test article of the shuttle design, will move from its current home at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York. The Udvar-Hazy Center will be home for Discovery, which finished its last mission in March. Endeavour, which is being readied for its final flight at the end of this month, will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Atlantis, which is currently scheduled to fly the last shuttle mission in June, will go to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.

From left-to-right: Former astronaut and KSC Director Robert Crippen, former astronaut and current NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, astronaut Janet Kavandi, former astronaut and current KSC Director Bob Cabana and shuttle Endeavour's Vehicle Manager Mike Parrish. Behind them is shuttle Atlantis, which will remain at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Although Bolden and Cabana are former astronauts, they were joined by one of the two men that flew the very first shuttle mission, STS-1 – Robert Crippen. This mission is viewed as one of the most risky test flights in history. If something had gone wrong during the first mission’s launch, Crippen and Commander John Young would have had to eject from Columbia – through the vehicle’s fiery plume. However, everything worked according to plan and Columbia landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California two days later.

The weight of the day’s events had an obvious impact on Bolden and Crippen, both of whom were visibly emotional during the presentation. Crippen’s comments detailed the feelings of many in that this is a bitter-sweet anniversary. Those in attendance supported the four-time shuttle veteran with loud applause when it was announced that Atlantis would remain at Kennedy Space Center.

Former NASA astronaut and current Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana gestures toward shuttle Atlantis which will remain in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

“Stay focused, “said Bolden during his comments, referring to the gap in manned space flight that is about to take place. “It’s been a rough day.”

There was also a guest appearance from the current members of the International Space Station who called in from on orbit. They apologized for not being able to attend – before they acknowledged it was thanks to the hard work of those present that they couldn’t be there. Astronauts Cady Coleman, Ron Garan were joined by ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli as well as cosmonauts Dmitry Kondratyev, Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev. The station’s crew spoke about how the shuttle program made this international effort possible.

The crew of the International Space Station conduct a long-distance phone call to attendees at the 30th Anniversary event of the shuttle program. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

On April 12, 1981, the space shuttle Columbia roared into orbit on the first mission of the shuttle program. The first crew only had two astronauts on board, Apollo veteran John Young and rookie astronaut Robert Crippen. The first flight of the shuttle program took place 20 years to the day that the first human rode fire into orbit – Yuri Gagarin.

There are currently only two shuttle flights remaining, Endeavour is slated to conduct its 25th and final mission, STS-134, at the end of this month and Atlantis will launch the final mission on June 28. Once this mission is over, NASA will have to rely on Russia for access to the International Space Station until small, commercial firms; those supported under President Obama’s new plans for NASA can produce a launch system to fill the void.

“I would have been happy to get any of the orbiters here at KSC,” said Robert Crippen when interviewed. “Getting Atlantis makes this a very good day.”

The space shuttle Atlantis was on display, with commemorative banners from each of the orbiters. Atlantis will reside at Kennedy Space Center after her final flight this June. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Japan Quake May Have Shortened Earth Days, Moved Axis

TerraSAR-X Change Analysis of Sendai Area, Japan. Map show coastal area of Sendai effected by 9,0 magnitude Earthquake that triggered ensuing destructive Tsunami. Credit: Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) - German Aerospace Center


The terribly destructive magnitude 9.0 earthquake which struck Japan on March 11, may have had another effect – Shortening the length of each Earth day and shifting its axis. Did you notice any change ?

Well according to NASA, the changes are so small that you won’t notice the difference.

Based on initial calculations conducted by Richard Gross, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the earthquake should have caused Earth to rotate just slightly faster, shortening the length of the day by about 1.8 microseconds (a microsecond is one millionth of a second), according to a statement released by NASA.

A reader posted this link to before and after photos

Gross used complex modeling and estimates of fault slippage to perform a preliminary theoretical calculation of how the earth’s rotation may have been affected.

Calculations by Gross also indicate that the position of Earth’s figure axis could have shifted by about 17 centimeters (6.5 inches), towards 133 degrees east longitude. The figure axis is the axis about which Earth’s mass is balanced.
Earth’s figure axis is therefore different and offset from the north-south axis by about 10 meters.

“This shift in Earth’s figure axis will cause Earth to wobble a bit differently as it rotates, but it will not cause a shift of Earth’s axis in space-only external forces such as the gravitational attraction of the sun, moon and planets can do that,” according to the NASA statement.

The estimates for both the shortening in the Earth’s rotation and shift in the figure axis are preliminary and will very likely change as more data is collected and the calculations are refined.

The March 11 earthquake was the fifth largest since 1900. So far, over 4000 people are confirmed dead and the overall death total may exceed 10,000.

Several heavily damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant are in danger of meltdown as hero workers inside put their lives on the line to avoid a catastrophic failure and try to prevent the spread of lethal radiation.

This view of Earth comes from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer aboard the Terra satellite

Previously, Gross had calculated the affects of the magnitude 8.8 Chilean quake in 2010 and found them to be slightly smaller compared to the Japanese quake. He calculated a shortening in the length of day of about 1.26 microseconds and shifting of Earth’s figure axis of about 8 centimeters (3 inches). These affects are dependent on the magnitude of the quake, exactly where it is located as well as how the particulars of how the fault slips.

In fact, Earth’s rotation is changing all the time as a result of continual changes in atmospheric winds and oceanic currents and these effects are about 550 times larger than the Japanese earthquake.

“Over the course of a year, the length of the day increases and decreases by about a millisecond,” says Gross. Indeed, the effects of earthquakes on changing rotation are so tiny that they are smaller than the margin of error in the measurements themselves.

By comparison, measurements of the figure axis are much more reliable and meaningful. Changes to the figure axis can be accurately measured to within about 5 centimeters. This means that the estimated 17 centimeter shift from the Japanese quake may be real after accounting for the effects of the atmospheric winds and ocean currents. Further research is needed as more data are collected and analyzed.

“These changes in Earth’s rotation are perfectly natural and happen all the time. People shouldn’t worry about them,” said Gross.

Source: NASA Press Release:

KSC Launch Pad Worker Falls, Dies

Shuttle Endeavour at launch pad 39 A. Credit: NASA


A worker at the space shuttle launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, pad 39A, fell to his death early Monday morning, according to reports. An employee of United Launch Alliance fell from the launch pad tower near space shuttle Endeavour. NASA released the following statement:

“At about 7:40 a.m. EDT this morning, a United Space Alliance worker fell at NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A. NASA emergency medical personnel responded, but they were unable to revive the man. Because of medical privacy, currently we’re not able to release any additional details about this fatality. Family members are being notified. All work at Launch Pad 39A has been suspended for the rest of the day, and counseling and other employee assistance are being provided to workers. Right now our focus is on our workers and for the family of the USA employee. The incident is under investigation.”

Our condolences to the man’s family and his United Launch Alliance co-workers.


USA has now released the name of the person involved in the accident at the launch pad as engineer James D. Vanover.

“Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the family of Mr. Vanover,” United Space Alliance Chief Executive Officer Virginia Barnes said in a statement. “Our focus right now is on providing support for the family, and for his coworkers. We are also providing our full support to investigating officials in order to determine the cause of the incident as quickly as possible. Until that investigation is complete, it would be inappropriate to provide further comment on the details.”

Endeavour’s Final Rollout

Endeavour begins her journey out to the launch pad under a clear, cold Florida sky. Photo Credit: Ken Kremer/

CAPE CANAVERAL – The youngest orbiter in NASA’s shuttle fleet headed to Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the last time on Friday, Mar. 10. The shuttle started its slow trek out to the launch pad around 8 p.m. EST. Endeavour is being prepared for the STS-134 mission which is scheduled to launch on Apr. 19 at 7:48 p.m. EST.

The space shuttle Endeavour rolled out to Launch Complex for the final time at 7:56 p.m. EST. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

Endeavour was wheeled out of NASA’s massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on top of the crawler-transporter. This huge, tracked vehicle moves at a blistering pace of about a mile an hour. Therefore it took Endeavour several hours to reach LC39A. What is known as “Rollout” had been slated to occur the day prior, but a front of nasty weather blew in and shuttle managers decided to push the trip back a day.

The STS-134 will be Endeavour’s 25th and final mission. It is a resupply flight to the International Space Station. Its payload consists of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer -02 (AMS-02) as well as the Express Logistics Carrier-3.

Endeavour, bathed in golden light, awaits her final trip out to the launch pad. Photo Credit: Ken Kremer/

“As exciting as it will be to fly this mission, what’s even more exciting is the science that this flight will bring to the International Space Station,” said STS-134 Pilot Greg Johnson. “I have no doubt that the AMS-02 will teach us new things about how the universe works and it may even show us new particles that we didn’t even know existed.”

Commander Mark Kelly will lead the crew of six, Johnson is the pilot and the Mission Specialists will be Mike Fincke, Andrew J. Feustel, Greg Chamitoff and European astronaut Roberto Vittori.

STS-134 Pilot Greg Johnson talks to reporters about his views on the upcoming STS-134 mission. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

For a while it was uncertain whether-or-not Mark Kelly, the mission’s commander would be on this historic flight. His wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was severely injured when she was shot in the head by alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner. NASA named Rick Sturckow as the mission’s backup commander. However, Kelly announced later that he would remain the mission’s commander and resumed training with his crewmates. By all accounts, it was Giffords that encouraged him to continue and it appears that she will back at Kennedy Space Center when the mission launches.

“While all of us that have worked on Endeavour are a little sad that this is her final mission, we remained focused on conducting her last flight as safely as possible,” said Endeavour’s Flow Director, Dana Hutcherson.

Reflected in the waters of the Kennedy Space Center turn basin, Endeavour heads out for her date with history. Photo Credit: Ken Kremer/

Endeavour was constructed after the loss of Challenger in 1986. The orbiter first flew in 1992. After the STS-134 mission concludes there will only be one flight remaining in the shuttle program, STS-135, currently slated for a June 28 launch. It has been hinted that Endeavour might end up staying at Kennedy Space Center – at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. However, an official announcement has yet to be made.

Endeavour is the youngest orbiter in the shuttle fleet, this resupply flight to the International Space Station will be the last mission of its 19-year career. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

X-37B thunders off the pad on its way to orbit

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V carries the second OTV to orbit. Photo Credit:

CAPE CANAVERAL – Much has been made about the secretive nature of the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). Better known as the X-37B, the second of the U.S. Air Force’s OTVs roared off Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 41 at 5: 46 p.m. EDT. The Atlas V 501 thundered off of the launch pad carrying the second of the two OTVs into orbit.

The launch was to take place on Mar. 4, but looming cumulus clouds, high winds and rain pushed the launch back a day. The first launch window today opened at 4:09 p.m. EDT, however technical issues required minor work out on the launch pad and it was decided to try for launch during the second launch window’s opening.

This is the second launch of the mini unmanned X-37B space planes. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

The first OTV, USA-212 lifted off from the exact same launch pad on 22 April 2010 and returned to Earth on Dec. 3, 2010. The return to earth tested out the space planes heat shield as well as the vehicle’s hypersonic aerodynamic aspects. The space plane is small enough to be carried within the U.S. space shuttle’s payload bay, it landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The craft suffered a tire blowout upon landing, but landed safely.

“The X-37B is a scientific achievement as well as a tremendous step in space operations. By itself, the ability to put a vehicle in space, conduct experiments and tests for close to nine months and then have that vehicle autonomously de-orbit and land is an important accomplishment,” said Major Tracy Bunko an Air Force spokeswoman. “This gives the Air Force the ability to examine how state-of-the-art, highly complex technologies will perform in space before they are made operational is an important cost-saving, risk-reducing capability.”

U.S. Air Force officials stated that the X-37B program has the potential of making space experiments much more affordable. This would allow future experiment designers to focus their resources and funds on technology and innovation rather than on what they currently are forced to expend them on – basic services, redundancy and ground operations.