The Big Dipper Like You’ve Never Seen It Before!

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All right, it may look just like any other picture you’ve ever seen of the Big Dipper. Maybe even a little less impressive, in fact. But, unlike any other picture, this one was taken from 290 million km away by NASA’s Juno spacecraft en route to Jupiter, part of a test of its Junocam instrument!  Now that’s something new concerning a very old lineup of stars!

“I can recall as a kid making an imaginary line from the two stars that make up the right side of the Big Dipper’s bowl and extending it upward to find the North Star,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of NASA’s Juno mission. “Now, the Big Dipper is helping me make sure the camera aboard Juno is ready to do its job.”

Diagram of the Juno spacecraft (NASA/JPL)

The image is a section of a larger series of scans acquired by Junocam between 20:23 and 20:56 UTC (3:13 to 3:16 PM EST) on March 14, 2012. Still nowhere near Jupiter, the purpose of the imaging exercise was to make sure that Junocam doesn’t create any electromagnetic interference that could disrupt Juno’s other science instruments.

In addition, it allowed the Junocam team at Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, CA to test the instrument’s Time-Delay Integration (TDI) mode, which allows image stabilization while the spacecraft is in motion.

Because Juno is rotating at about 1 RPM, TDI is crucial to obtaining focused images. The images that make up the full-size series of scans were taken with an exposure time of 0.5 seconds, and yet the stars (brightened above by the imaging team) are still reasonably sharp… which is exactly what the Junocam team was hoping for.

“An amateur astrophotographer wouldn’t be very impressed by these images, but they show that Junocam is correctly aligned and working just as we expected”, said Mike Caplinger, Junocam systems engineer.

As well as the Big Dipper, Junocam also captured other stars and asterisms, such as Vega, Canopus, Regulus and the “False Cross”. (Portions of the imaging swaths were also washed out by sunlight but this was anticipated by the team.)

These images will be used to further calibrate Junocam for operation in the low-light environment around Jupiter, once Juno arrives in July 2016.

Read more about the Junocam test on the MSSS news page here.

As of May 10, Juno was approximately 251 million miles (404 million kilometers) from Earth. Juno has now traveled 380 million miles (612 million kilometers) since its launch on August 5, 2011 and is currently traveling at a velocity of 38,300 miles (61,600 kilometers) per hour relative to the Sun.

Watch a video of the Juno launch here, taken by yours truly from the press site at Kennedy Space Center!

Beneath the Surface: Seeing Jupiter’s Hidden Storms


Launched on August 5, 2011, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter in 2016 to study its magnetic field and atmosphere. Using its suite of science instruments Juno will peer inside the gas giant’s thick clouds, revealing hidden structures and powerful storms. To help people visualize what it means to see the invisible, JPL’s visual strategist Dan Goods created the exhibit above, titled Beneath the Surface. It’s an installation of lights, sound and fog effects that dramatically recreates what Juno will experience as it orbits Jupiter. By using their cell phone cameras, viewers can see lightning “storms” hidden beneath upper, opaque layers of “atmosphere”… in much the same way Juno will.

Goods explains: “Humans are only able to see a little, tiny sliver of what there is available in light. There’s gamma rays, microwaves, ultraviolet and infrared light also, and infrared is close enough to the visible part of the spectrum that cell phone cameras can pick it up. Cell phones normally produce more grainy photos at night because they don’t try to cut out the infrared light the way higher-end digital cameras do so in this case, the cell phone cameras are an advantage.” (Via the Pasadena Weekly.)

I had a chance to meet Dan Goods during a Tweetup event for the Juno launch at Kennedy Space Center. He’d brought a table that had magnetic elements set beneath a flat black surface, and by passing a handheld magnet over the table you could “detect” the different magnetic fields… in some cases rather strongly, even though they were all obviously invisible. It was an ingenious way that Juno’s abilities could be demonstrated in a “hands-on” manner.

Watch my video of the Juno launch from the KSC press site.

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Beneath the Surface takes that kind of demonstration to an entirely new level.

“I love to work with the world of things that are right in front of you but you just can’t see,” Goods said. “With Juno, there’s all this structure just under the surface of Jupiter, but humans can develop tools that help us understand things we’d never have seen before.”

The exhibit was installed at the Pasadena Museum of California Art until January 8. It will now travel to science museums around the country.

Video: watch how the exhibit was constructed.

Juno’s primary goal is to improve our understanding of Jupiter’s formation and evolution. The spacecraft will spend a year investigating the planet’s origins, interior structure, deep atmosphere and magnetosphere. Juno’s study of Jupiter will help us to understand the history of our own solar system and provide new insight into how planetary systems form and develop in our galaxy and beyond.

Explore the Juno mission more at http://missionjuno.swri.edu/.

2011: Top Stories from the Best Year Ever for NASA Planetary Science!

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A year ago, 2011 was proclaimed as the “Year of the Solar System” by NASA’s Planetary Science division. And what a year of excitement it was indeed for the planetary science community, amateur astronomers and the general public alike !

NASA successfully delivered astounding results on all fronts – On the Story of How We Came to Be.

“2011 was definitely the best year ever for NASA Planetary Science!” said Jim Green in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Green is the Director of Planetary Science for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA HQ. “The Search for Life is a significant priority for NASA.”

This past year was without doubt simply breathtaking in scope in terms of new missions, new discoveries and extraordinary technical achievements. The comprehensive list of celestial targets investigated in 2011 spanned virtually every type of object in our solar system – from the innermost planet to the outermost reaches nearly touching interplanetary space.

There was even a stunningly evocative picture showing “All of Humanity” – especially appropriate now in this Holiday season !

You and all of Humanity are here !
-- Earth & Moon Portrait by Juno from 6 Million miles away --
First Photo transmitted from Jupiter Bound Juno shows Earth (on the left) and the Moon (on the right). Taken on Aug. 26, 2011 when spacecraft was about 6 million miles (9.66 million kilometers) away from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Three brand new missions were launched and ongoing missions orbited a planet and an asteroid and flew past a comet.

“NASA has never had the pace of so many planetary launches in such a short time,” said Green.

And three missions here were awarded ‘Best of 2011’ for innovation !

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), Dawn and MESSENGER named “Best of What’s New” in 2011 by Popular Science magazine. 3 NASA Planetary Science missions received the innovation award for 2011 from Popular Science magazine. Artist concept shows mosaic of MESSENGER, Mars Science Laboratory and Dawn missions. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Here’s the Top NASA Planetary Science Stories of 2011 – ‘The Year of the Solar System’ – in chronological order

1. Stardust-NExT Fly By of Comet Tempel 1

Starting from the first moments of 2011 at the dawn of Jan. 1, hopes were already running high for planetary scientists and engineers busily engaged in setting up a romantic celestial date in space between a volatile icy comet and an aging, thrusting probe on Valentine’s Day.

The comet chasing Stardust-Next spacecraft successfully zoomed past Comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14 at 10.9 km/sec (24,000 MPH) after flying over 6 Billion kilometers (3.5 Billion mi).

6 Views of Comet Tempel 1 and Deep Impact crater during Stardust-NExT flyby on Feb. 14, 2011
Arrows show location of man-made crater created in 2005 by NASA’s prior Deep Impact comet mission and newly imaged as Stardust-NExT zoomed past comet in 2011. The images progress in time during closest approach to comet beginning at upper left and moving clockwise to lower left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Maryland. Post process and annotations by Marco Di Lorenzo & Kenneth Kremer

The craft approached within 178 km (111mi) and snapped 72 astonishingly detailed high resolution science images over barely 8 minutes. It also fulfilled the teams highest hopes by photographing the human-made crater created on Tempel 1 in 2005 by a cosmic collision with a penetrator hurled by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft. The probe previously flew by Comet Wild 2 in 2004 and returned cometary coma particles to Earth in 2006

Tempel 1 is the first comet to be visited by two spaceships from Earth and provided the first-ever opportunity to compare observations on two successive passages around the Sun.

Don Brownlee, the original Principal Investigator, summarized the results for Universe Today; “A great bonus of the mission was the ability to flyby two comets and take images and measurements. The wonderfully successful flyby of Comet Tempel 1 was a great cap to the 12 year mission and provided a great deal of new information to study the diversity among comets.”

“The new images of Tempel showed features that form a link between seemingly disparate surface features of the 4 comets imaged by spacecraft. Combining data on the same comet from the Deep Impact and Stardust missions has provided important new insights in to how comet surfaces evolve over time and how they release gas and dust into space”.

2. MESSENGER at Mercury

On March 18, the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging, or MESSENGER, spacecraft became the first spacecraft inserted into orbit around Mercury, the innermost planet.

So far MESSENGER has completed 1 solar day – 176 Earth days- circling above Mercury. The probe has collected a treasure trove of new data from the seven instruments onboard yielding a scientific bonanza; these include global imagery of most of the surface, measurements of the planet’s surface chemical composition, topographic evidence for significant amounts of water ice, magnetic field and interactions with the solar wind.

“MESSENGER discovered that Mercury has an enormous core, larger than Earth’s. We are trying to understand why that is and why Mercury’s density is similar to Earth’s,” Jim Green explained to Universe Today.

The First Solar Day
After its first Mercury solar day (176 Earth days) in orbit, MESSENGER has nearly completed two of its main global imaging campaigns: a monochrome map at 250 m/pixel and an eight-color, 1-km/pixel color map. Small gaps will be filled in during the next solar day. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

“The primary mission lasts 2 solar days, equivalent to 4 Mercury years.”

“NASA has granted a 1 year mission extension, for a total of 8 Mercury years. This will allow the team to understand the environment at Mercury during Solar Maximum for the first time. All prior spacecraft observations were closer to solar minimum,” said Green.

MESSENGER was launched in 2004 and the goal is to produce the first global scientific observations of Mercury and piece together the puzzle of how Mercury fits in with the origin and evolution of our solar system.

NASA’s Mariner 10 was the only previous robotic probe to explore Mercury, during three flyby’s back in the mid-1970’s early in the space age.

3. Dawn Asteroid Orbiter

The Dawn spacecraft achieved orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta in July 2011 after a four year interplanetary cruise and began transmitting the history making first ever close-up observations of the mysteriously diverse and alien world that is nothing short of a ‘Space Spectacular’.

“We do not have a good analog to Vesta anywhere else in the Solar System,” Chris Russell said to Universe Today. Russell, from UCLA, is the scientific Principal Investigator for Dawn.

Before Dawn, Vesta was just another fuzzy blob in the most powerful telescopes. Dawn has completely unveiled Vesta as a remarkably dichotomous, heavily battered and pockmarked world that’s littered with thousands of craters, mountains and landslides and ringed by mystifying grooves and troughs. It will unlock details about the elemental abundances, chemical composition and interior structure of this marvelously intriguing body.

Cataclysmic collisions eons ago excavated Vesta so it lacks a south pole. Dawn discovered that what unexpectedly remains is an enormous mountain some 16 miles (25 kilometers) high, twice the height of Mt. Everest.

Dawn is now about midway through its 1 year mission at Vesta which ends in July 2012 with a departure for Ceres, the largest asteroid. So far the framing cameras have snapped more than 10,000 never-before-seen images.

“What can be more exciting than to explore an alien world that until recently was virtually unknown!. ” Dr. Marc Rayman said to Universe Today. Rayman is Dawn’s Chief Engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

“Dawn is NASA at its best: ambitious, exciting, innovative, and productive.”

4. Juno Jupiter Orbiter

The solar powered Juno spacecraft was launched on Aug. 5 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, to embark on a five year, 2.8 billion kilometer (1.7 Billion mi) trek to Jupiter, our solar system’s largest planet. It was the first of three NASA planetary science liftoffs scheduled in 2011.

Juno Jupiter Orbiter soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

Juno’s goal is to map to the depths of the planets interior and elucidate the ingredients of Jupiter’s genesis hidden deep inside. These measurements will help answer how Jupiter’s birth and evolution applies to the formation of the other eight planets.

The 4 ton spacecraft will arrive at the gas giant in July 2016 and fire its braking rockets to go into a polar orbit and circle the planet 33 times over about one year.

The suite of nine instruments will scan the gas giant to find out more about the planets origins, interior structure and atmosphere, measure the amount of water and ammonia, observe the aurora, map the intense magnetic field and search for the existence of a solid planetary core.

“Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary — to interpret what Jupiter has to say.”

5. Opportunity reaches Endeavour Crater on Mars

The long lived Opportunity rover finally arrived at the rim of the vast 14 mile (22 kilometer) wide Endeavour Crater in mid-August 2011 following an epic three year trek across treacherous dune fields – a feat once thought unimaginable. All told, Opportunity has driven more than 34 km ( 21 mi) since landing on the Red Planet way back in 2004 for a mere 90 sol mission.

Endeavour Crater Panorama from Opportunity Mars Rover in August 2011
Opportunity arrived at the rim of Endeavour on Sol 2681, August 9, 2011 after a three year trek. The robot photographed segments of the huge craters eroded rim in this panoramic vista. Endeavour Crater is 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

In November, the rover discovered the most scientifically compelling evidence yet for the flow of liquid water on ancient Mars in the form of a water related mineral vein at a spot dubbed “Homestake” along an eroded ridge of Endeavour’s rim.

Read my story about the Homestake discovery here, along with our panoramic mosaic showing the location – created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo and published by Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 12 Dec. 2011.

Watch for my upcoming story detailing Opportunity’s accomplishments in 2011.

6. GRAIL Moon Mappers

The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL mission is comprised of twin spacecraft tasked to map the moon’s gravity and study the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core.

Twin GRAIL Probes GO for Lunar Orbit Insertion on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
GRAIL spacecraft will map the moon's gravity field and interior composition. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The dynamic duo lifted off from Cape Canaveral on September 10, 2011 atop the last Delta II rocket that will likely soar to space from Florida. After a three month voyage of more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) since blastoff, the two mirror image GRAIL spacecraft dubbed Grail-A and GRAIL-B are sailing on a trajectory placing them on a course over the Moon’s south pole on New Year’s weekend.

Each spacecraft will fire the braking rockets for about 40 minutes for insertion into Lunar Orbit about 25 hours apart on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Engineers will then gradually lower the satellites to a near-polar near-circular orbital altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers).

The spacecraft will fly in tandem and the 82 day science phase will begin in March 2012.

“GRAIL is a Journey to the Center of the Moon”, says Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “GRAIL will rewrite the book on the formation of the moon and the beginning of us.”

“By globally mapping the moon’s gravity field to high precision scientists can deduce information about the interior structure, density and composition of the lunar interior. We’ll evaluate whether there even is a solid or liquid core or a mixture and advance the understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon and the solar system,” explained co-investigator Sami Asmar to Universe Today. Asmar is from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

7. Curiosity Mars Rover

The Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover soared skywards on Nov. 26, the last of 2011’s three planetary science missions. Curiosity is the newest, largest and most technologically sophisticated robotic surveyor that NASA has ever assembled.

“MSL packs the most bang for the buck yet sent to Mars.” John Grotzinger, the Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist of the California Institute of Technology, told Universe Today.

The three meter long robot is the first astrobiology mission since the Viking landers in the 1970’s and specifically tasked to hunt for the ‘Ingredients of Life’ on Mars – the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System.


Video caption: Action packed animation depicts sequences of Curiosity departing Earth, the nail biting terror of the never before used entry, descent and landing on the Martian surface and then looking for signs of life at Gale Crater during her minimum two year expedition across hitherto unseen and unexplored Martian landscapes, mountains and craters. Credit: NASA

Curiosity will gather and analyze samples of Martian dirt in pursuit of the tell-tale signatures of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.

NASA is targeting Curiosity to a pinpoint touch down inside the 154 km (96 mile) wide Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. The crater exhibits exposures of phyllosilicates and other minerals that may have preserved evidence of ancient or extant Martian life and is dominated by a towering 3 mile (5 km) high mountain.

“10 science instruments are all aimed at a mountain whose stratigraphic layering records the major breakpoints in the history of Mars’ environments over likely hundreds of millions of years, including those that may have been habitable for life,” Grotzinger told me.

Titan Upfront
The colorful globe of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, passes in front of the planet and its rings in this true color snapshot from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover and Ken Kremer - inside the Cleanroom at the Kennedy Space Center. Last View of Curiosity just prior to folding and encapsulation for launch. Credit: Ken Kremer

This past year Ken was incredibly fortunate to witness the ongoing efforts of many of these magnificent endeavors.

Curiosity Powered Up for Martian Voyage on Nov. 26 – Exclusive Message from Chief Engineer Rob Manning

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“We are ready and so is Curiosity !”

– – Says Rob Manning, Curiosity Chief Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif – in an exclusive interview with Universe Today for all fans of Curiosity and the unprecedented voyage of Science and Discovery about to take flight to Mars on November 26. Manning was also the Chief Engineer for the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) of NASA’s phenomenally successful Spirit, Opportunity and Phoenix Mars robotic explorers.

Read Rob Manning’s special greeting about Curiosity to readers of Universe Today below.

Meet Rob and other JPL Mars engineers in the cool Video describing the ‘Challanges of Getting to Mars’ – below


Curiosity is NASA’s next Mars rover and her MMRTG nuclear power source has been installed at the launch pad through special access panels in the Atlas booster payload fairing and protective aeroshell on Nov. 17.

The huge 1-ton robot is now due to blastoff for the Red Planet on Saturday, November 26 at 10: 02 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The launch window is open for one hour and 43 minutes.

Liftoff was postponed by one day to replace a battery in the on board flight termination system required in case the rocket were to veer off course.

Here is the very latest Curiosty update status from JPL’s Rob Manning as of Sunday evening – Nov. 20

“All seems well here at JPL in Pasadena,” Manning told me.

“We are having our last rehearsal at 1:30 a.m. on Monday, Nov 21.

“Weird ! As of a few hours ago the last human hands (in gloves) closed out the hatch door on the entry aeroshell and the two large doors in the rocket fairing have been closed. What is weird about it is that finally finally she is powered up and alone.”

“She has never been this alone before. Ironically all eyes are still upon her. Our team is monitoring her vitals 24-7,” Manning explained.


“The Challenges of Getting to Mars’ – Video caption: Meet Curiosity Chief Engineer Rob Manning and more members of the Curiosity Mars Rover Engineering Team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explain the final assembly of Curiosity at the Kennedy Space Center and how Curiosity will land use the rocket assisted Sky Crane.

“By this time next week, Curiosity will be heading for the home she was meant for.”

“Soon she will feel the cold walls of deep space on her radiators. The x-band transmitter and receiver will have an broken view of the sky (with Earth but a shiny blue dot off to her left). The penetrating rays of the sun will push electrons out of the solar panels and keep her battery charged. (And perhaps a few solar flares will pass by, just to keep things interesting.)”

“Earth can be a rough place for a rover not designed for our planet. Worse are those of us who have poked and prodded, tested beyond spec and pushed in ways that can only be done on Earth.”

“Sometimes we over-do it and push near the breaking point. We are not perfect after all but we need to know that she will do what needs to be done for her very own survival. Well she seems to have survived us.”

“Of course Curiosity will never really be alone. We are right there with her every step of the way. She is us.”

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)- all elements assembled into flight configuration in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The top portion is the cruise stage attached to the aeroshell (containing the compact car-sized rover) with the heat shield on the bottom. MMRTG power source was installed through hatch door at right.
Launch of MSL aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is scheduled for Nov. 26 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: NASA/Glenn Benson

Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. An Atlas V rocket similar to this one utilized in August 2011 for NASAS’s Juno Jupiter Orbiter will blast Curiosity to Mars on Nov. 26, 2011 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

“I will be at JPL during launch,” said Manning.

The JPL team is also working day and night to insure that the do or die Mars Insertion burn fires as planned.

“Once the Deep Space Network acquires the signal, I want to be there to make sure that we did not fail her and that the transition from being the Atlas’s payload to interplanetary cruise is as painless as possible.”

“It will be a bit of a surprise if we did not have a bit of a surprise – but we are ready and so is Curiosity”

Curiosity and the Atlas V booster that will propel her to Mars will roll out to Launch Pad 41 at the Florida Space Coast on Friday morning, Nov. 24, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday.

NASA TV will carry the MSL launch live

After a 10 month interplanetary journey to Mars, Curiosity will plummet through the atmosphere and fire up the rocket powered descent stage and ‘Sky Crane’ to safely touchdown astride a layered mountain at the Gale Crater landing site in August 2012.

Curiosity has 10 science instruments to search for evidence about whether Mars has had environments favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life. The unique rover will use a laser to look inside rocks and release the gasses so that its spectrometer can analyze and send the data back to Earth.

Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launching 26 Nov. 2011

Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:

NASA’s Curiosity Set to Search for Signs of Martian Life
Curiosity Rover Bolted to Atlas Rocket – In Search of Martian Microbial Habitats
Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Packing a Mars Rover for the Trip to Florida; Time Lapse Video
Test Roving NASA’s Curiosity on Earth

Aerojet: Small Space Firm Has Big Space History

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When it comes to space flight pedigrees, few companies have one that can compare to Aerojet’s. The California-based company has a resume on space operations that is as lengthy as it is impressive. Universe Today sat down with Julie Van Kleeck – the firm’s vice-president of space and launch systems business unit.

Van Kleeck spoke extensively about the company’s rich history, its legacy of accomplishments – as well as what it has planned for space missions of the future.

Universe Today: Hi Julie, thanks for taking the time to chat with us today.

Van Kleeck: “My pleasure!”

Universe Today: How long has Aerojet been in business and what exactly is it that your company produces?

Van Kleeck: “We’ve been in the space business – since there was a space program – so since at least the 50s. We’ve dealt with both launch systems as well as space maneuvering systems, those components that enable spacecraft to move while in space.”

Aerojet propulsion systems have helped many of NASA's deep-space probes explore the solar system. Image Credit: NASA.gov

Universe Today: What about in terms of human space flight, when did Aerojet get involved with that?

Van Kleeck: “We first started working on the manned side of the house back during the Gemini Program, from there we progressed to Apollo, then shuttle and we hope to be involved with SLS (Space Launch System) as well.”

Universe Today: I understand that your company also has an extensive history when it comes to unmanned missions as well, care to tell us a bit about that?

Van Kleeck: “We have been on every discovery mission that has ever been launched, we have touched every part of space that you can touch.”

It is Aerojet's solid rocket motors that provide that extra-added “punch” to the versions of the Atlas V launch vehicle that utilize them. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Universe Today: Some aerospace companies only produce one product or service, why is Aerojet’s list of offerings so diversified?

Van Kleeck: “We’re quite different than our competitors in that we provide a very wide-range of products to our customers. We’ve provided the liquid engines that went on Titan and now we provide the solids that go on the Atlas V launch vehicle as well as the small chemical and electrical propulsion systems that are utilized on some satellites.”

An Aerojet AJ26 rocket engine is prepared for testing in this image. These engines, as well as a license to produce them, were purchased from Russia and were originally designated the NK-33. Picture Credit: Aerojet

Universe Today: Does this mean that Aerojet places more importance on one space flight system over others?

Van Kleeck: “We view each of the products that we produce as equally important. Having said that, the fact that Aerojet offers a diversity of products and understands each of them well – sets us apart from our competitors. Firms that only produce one type of product tend to work to sell just that one product, whereas Aerojet’s extensive catalog of services allows us to be more objective when offering those services to our customers.”

During a tour of the Vertical Integration Facility, Aerojet's Solid Rocket Motors or SRms -were on full display attached to the Atlas V rocket that is set to send the Mars Science Laboratory rover "Curiosity" to Mars. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Universe Today: When you look back, what is one of the most interesting projects that Aerojet has been involved with?

Van Kleeck: “I think as I look back over the past decade, New Horizons comes to mind, it was the first Atlas to launch with five solids on it. I look at that mission in particular as a major accomplish for not just us – but the country as well.”

In this image an AJ26 liquid rocket engine is tested. These engines are utilized as part of Orbital Science's Taurus II program. Photo Credit: Aerojet

Universe Today: What does the future hold for Aerojet?

Van Kleeck: ”We’re working on the Orion crew capsule right now with both liquid propulsion for it as well as solid propulsion for the abort test motor. We’re very much looking forward to seeing Orion fly in the coming years. We are currently putting into place the basic infrastructure to support human space exploration. We are working with both commercial crewed as well as Robert Bigelow to provide propulsion systems that work with their individual system – because no one system fits everyone. We are pleased to be offer systems for a wide variety of space exploration efforts.”

Universe Today: Julie, thanks for taking the time to chat with us today!

Van Kleeck: “No problem at all – it was my pleasure!”

Aerojet’s products will be on full display Nov. 25 as, if everything goes as planned the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity is set to launch on that day. Four of the company’s solid rocket motors or SRMs will help power the Curiosity rover on its way to the red planet.

For a taste of what Aerojet’s SRMs provide – please view the NASA video below.

Behind the Scenes: Curiosity’s Rocket Prepared at Vertical Integration Facility

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — One of the more dramatic buildings operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida is the Vertical Integration Facility or VIF as it is more commonly known. It is in this facility that expendable launch vehicles are brought, lying on their sides – and then hoisted into the vertical position for launch. The current resident in the VIF is the Atlas V 541 (AV-028) that is slated to launch the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).

At the top of the 292 –foot-tall structure is a 60 ton crane that initially is used to lift the Atlas’ first stage into the vertical position. The payload, ensconced in the protective fairing, is assembled elsewhere. Once it arrives at the VIF, it is hoisted high into the air using the same crane and then mated with the top of the launch vehicle. Given the delicate nature of this operation technicians take their time in lifting the precious cargo and maneuvering it over the rocket.

The U.S. flag and the interstage adapter are seen in the image to the left. The photo to the right helps to illustrate the scale needed to assemble the Atlas V. Photo Credits: Jason Rhian

“You get the most amazing view from the top of the VIF,” said Mike Woolley of United Launch Alliance. “From this level you can clearly see not just Launch Complex 41, but a great deal of Florida’s Space Coast.”

Once the fairing and its payload have been safely affixed to the top of the rocket, the doors are opened up and the Atlas V is then rolled out to the adjacent Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41).

At the Vertical Integration Facility's fifh level, the segment of the rocket where the payload (in this case the MSL rover) is attached is the only element of the rocket that is visible. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

“Once the Atlas V is fully assembled, the completed vehicle is rolled, in the vertical, out to the launch pad.” Woolley said.

Currently on the fifth level the upper part of the Centaur, the all-important rocket that will send the rover on its way to Mars, covered in a protective layer of white plastic, is visible.

One of the easiest ways to display the size of the Atlas - is to actually break up the images. To the left is the top portion, to the right the middle (note the Aerojet Solid Rocket Motors the the right). Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Descending down the length of the Atlas V, level by level one gains an appreciation for the sheer scale of the Atlas rocket, its solid rocket motors and the attention to detail needed to launch payloads out of Earth’s gravity well.

On Level One the top of the Atlas’ Solid Rocket Motors (SRMs) produced by Aerojet are visible. At the ground floor, one has the ability to look up (somewhat, platforms and rigging block your view) the length of the rocket. On the ground level, one can plainly see that the twin RD-180 engines are Russian-made – the Cyrillic lettering still grace the engines’ nozzles.

Just inside the VIF one can look up the side of the Atlas V, even though elements of the launch vehicle are obstructed - the sight is still impressive. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

MSL is the next planetary mission on NASA’s docket, more commonly known as “Curiosity” is a nuclear-powered rover about the size of a compact automobile.

Curiosity is currently slated for a Nov. 25 launch date at 10:21 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41). Members of the media (myself included) got to see the Atlas for this launch being lifted into the air in preparation for the November launch when we were being escorted back to the NASA/LSC press site after the GRAIL launch was scrubbed (GRAIL would go on to be launched two days later).

In Focus: Aerospace Photojournalist Mike Killian

[/caption]CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – The photographers that cover the events that take place in and around Florida’s Space Coast come from diverse backgrounds. However, when it comes to the passion that attracts so many to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center – their origins are very similar.

Many amateur photographers like Mike Killian have always been interested in spaceflight, in capturing the spectacle of launch. Like Killian, these photographers start out not knowing how to get onto Kennedy Space Center to shoot the launches and other events that take place there. They work out arrangements with NASA friends to get close and then, finally, they get affiliated with an accredited news organization (in Killian’s case the ARES Institute).

“I have loved the space program since I was a child,” Killian said. “Most folks that come out here and do this I doubt very highly that they do it thinking they will get rich. They do it because what they are showing the world is so important, so awe-inspiring…and so beautiful.”

Killian caught the reflection of space shuttle Atlantis as it was towed back to its OPF after completing the final mission of the space shuttle era - STS-135. Photo Courtesy of Mike Killian

Killian has only covered the space program as a photographer for a relatively short time, about three years. During that time however – he has covered some pivotal points in space flight history. The last flights of the space shuttle era, the launch of spacecraft to Earth orbit, the Moon and soon Mars. Killian, also like his compatriots, sacrifices long hours and endures low pay to capture images of these events. But when he gets that perfect shot of solid rocket boosters separating from an Atlas V on its way to orbit, or the final landing of the space shuttle – it is all worth it.

“Photography is pretty much like anything else,” said Killian during a recent interview. “It’s all about timing – being at the right place – at the right time.”

Whether static or in dramtic motion, Killian has captured the space shuttle program's final days. Photo Courtesy of Mike Killian

One recurring theme that occurs in aerospace photography is – progression. Photographers will come out to KSC/CCAFS with their digital cameras, then they will buy a more powerful camera and then they move on to remote cameras. When one hears remote they think the cameras are far away – the truth is that these cameras are extremely close. “Remote” means that they are remotely activated – generally by either a sound or light sensor.

Killian employs 2 Canon Rebel XSi cameras due to the camera’s affordability and versatility.

The 27-year-old, unlike many of his colleagues, does have a favorite image – and it isn’t even one that he took on Kennedy Space Center proper.

Killian's favorite shot shows Launch Complex 39A in the distance, a Shuttle Training Aircraft or STA checking weather conditions - and a very active thunderstorm. Photo Courtesy of Mike Killian

“My favorite shot thus far is of a lightning storm over KSC for the night launch of Discovery on STS-128. That storm scrubbed the launch attempt, but the images I captured that night were unreal,” said Killian. “This particular photo has so much going on – Discovery basking in xenon lights atop launch pad 39A fully fueled with her crew onboard, lightning racing through the clouds directly above KSC, & the shuttle training aircraft flying over the storm (upper left of photo) on weather recon trying to determine if there would be any chance the storm could let up in time to support a launch that night. It’s very unique, not your typical launch photo.”

For Killian photographing the space program allows him to both combine his love of photography with the driving interest that he has for space flight. Killian has no plans to stop photographing the space program anytime soon. For him this is not about the money, it’s about the history of thunder and the wonder of light and like so many of his fellow photojournalists he feels privileged to be able to do what he does.

Killian has covered many different events at Kennedy Space Center. His camera has captured events as stirring as the final launch of the shuttle era - and as poignant as the final rollout of space shuttle Discovery (seen here). Images Courtesy of Mike Killian

Ed Weiler – NASA Science Leader and Hubble Chief Scientist Retires

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Ed Weiler, NASA’s Science leader in charge of the robotic missions that continually produce scientific breakthroughs that amaze all humanity and longtime Chief Scientist on the Hubble Space Telescope that has completely revolutionized our understanding of humanities place in the Universe, retired today (Sept. 30) from NASA after a distinguished career spanning almost 33 years.

Weiler is departing NASA during what has been dubbed the “Year of Space Science”- the best year ever for NASA Space Science research. The two most recent successes are the launch of JUNO to Jupiter and the twin GRAIL probes to the Moon. Blastoff of the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover is slated for late November 2011.

Weiler’s official title is associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at agency Headquarters in Washington, DC. In that capacity he was responsible for overseeing NASA’s science and research programs in Earth science, heliophysics, planetary science and astrophysics.

Weiler was appointed to lead SMD in 2008. He holds this position now for the second time after serving in between as Director of NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland from 2004 to 2008. His earlier stint as associate administrator lasted from 1998 to 2004 for what was then called the Space Science Enterprise.

Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Probably the job he loved best was as Chief Scientist of the Hubble Space Telescope from 1979 to 1998, until he was promoted to the top rung of NASA management.

I was very lucky to meet and chat with Ed Weiler while I was covering the final space shuttle flight – STS-125 – to repair and upgrade Hubble. STS 125 blasted off in May 2009 and accomplished every single objective to catapult Hubble to the apex of its capabilities.

At the recent launch of the twin GRAIL lunar mapping probes, I spoke with Weiler about a wide range of NASA missions. Watch for my upcoming interview with Ed.

Weiler is very hopeful that Hubble will continue to operate for several more years at least.

NASA issued this statement from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, “Ed leaves an enduring legacy of pride and success that forever will remain a part of NASA’s science history. His leadership helped inspire the public with each new scientific discovery, and enabled NASA to move forward with new capabilities to continue to explore our solar system and beyond.”

The successes under Weiler’s leadership include NASA’s great observatory missions, unprecedented advances in Earth science and extensive exploration of Mars and other planets in our solar system. These advances have rewritten science textbooks and earned enormous support for NASA’s science programs from the general public.

The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity are just one example of the science missions approved and funded during Weiler’s tenure.

Weiler’s leadership has been instrumental in securing continued support and funding for NASA Space Science from Congress and the White House. He has received numerous prestigious awards including the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and several Presidential Rank Awards for Meritorious Executive and Distinguished Executive.

Ed Weiler remembers Spirit at JPL symposium. Credit: AP

First Image Captured by NASAs Jupiter bound Juno; Earth – Moon Portrait

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NASA’s solar powered Jupiter bound Juno orbiter has captured her first image – a beautiful portrait of the Earth & Moon – since the probe blasted off from the home planet.

Juno lifted off 25 days ago at 12: 25 p.m. on August 5 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The spacecraft snapped the portrait with the onboard JunoCam camera on August 26 after journeying some 6 million miles (9.66 million km) from Earth and while traveling at a velocity of 77,600 miles per hour (124,900 kilometers per hour) relative to the sun.

“The image of the Earth Moon system is a rather unique perspective that we can get only by stepping outside of our home planet,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Bolton is from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

“On our way to Jupiter, we’ve looked back at home and managed to take this amazing image.”

“Earth looking much like any other planet or star from a distance is glorious as this somewhat average looking “star” is home to all of humanity. Our companion, the moon, so beautiful and important to us, stands out even less.”

“We appear almost average and inconspicuous, yet all of our history originates here. It makes one wonder just how many other planets or solar systems might contain life like ours,” Bolton told me.

Juno casts a shadow back toward Earth and Space Shuttle Launch Pad 39A and the shuttle crawler way (at left) seconds after liftoff from adjacent Launch Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. View from the VAB Roof. Credit: Ken Kremer

The Juno team commanded the probe to take the image as part of the checkout phase of the vehicles instruments and subsystems.

“The JunoCam instrument turn on and check out were planned activities. The instrument is working great and in fact, all the instruments that we’ve turned on thus far have been working great,” Bolton added.

So far the spacecraft is in excellent health and the team has completed the checkout of the Waves instrument and its two Flux Gate Magnetometer sensors and deployment of its V-shaped electric dipole antenna.

“We have a couple more instruments still to do,” Bolton noted.

The team reports that Juno also performed its first precession, or reorientation maneuver, using its thrusters and that the first trajectory control maneuver (TCM-1) was cancelled as unnecessary because of the extremely accurate targeting provided by the Atlas V rocket.

The portrait shot is actually not Juno’s last photo of her home.

The 8000 pound (3,600 kilogram) probe will fly by Earth once more on October 9, 2013 for a gravity assisted speed boost of 16,330 MPH (7.3 km/sec) to accelerate Juno past the asteroid belt on its long journey to the Jovian system.

Juno soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer

JunoCam will collect new photos and the other science instruments will make measurements as Juno cartwheels past Earth during the slingshot to Jupiter.

Juno is on a 5 year and 1.7 Billion mile (2.8 Billion km) trek to the largest planet in our solar system. When she arrives at Jupiter on July 4, 2016, Juno will become the first polar orbiting spacecraft at the gas giant.

During a one year science mission – entailing 33 orbits lasting 11 days each – the probe will plunge to within about 3000 miles (5000 km) of the turbulent cloud tops and collect unprecedented new data that will unveil the hidden inner secrets of Jupiter’s genesis and evolution.

The goal is to find out more about the planets origins, interior structure and atmosphere, observe the aurora, map the intense magnetic field and investigate the existence of a solid planetary core.

“This is a remarkable sight people get to see all too rarely,” said Bolton in a NASA statement about the Earth-Moon photo. “This view of our planet shows how Earth looks from the outside, illustrating a special perspective of our role and place in the universe. We see a humbling yet beautiful view of ourselves.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Juno mission. The spacecraft was designed and built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver.

Juno and Booster Streak Across the Stars
NASA's Juno spacecraft and its spent Centaur upper rocket stage are captured in this telescope view as they move across the field of stars. The five-minute, timed exposure was acquired on Aug. 5 11:18pm Eastern time (Aug. 6 at 3:18 UTC) when Juno was at a distance of about 195,000 miles (314,000 kilometers) from Earth. The images were taken remotely by amateur astronomer Scott Ferguson using Global Rent-a-Scope's GRAS-016 Takahashi Widefield Refractor, which is located in Nerpio, Spain. Credit: Scott Ferguson
Juno Spacecraft Cruise Trajectory to Jupiter
This graphic shows Juno's trajectory, or flight path, from Earth to Jupiter. The spacecraft travels around the Sun, to a point beyond the orbit of Mars where it fires its main engine a couple of times. These deep space maneuvers set up the Earth flyby maneuver that occurs approximately two years after launch. The Earth flyby gives Juno the boost in velocity it needs to coast all the way to Jupiter. Juno arrives at Jupiter in July 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
View of Juno’s position on Aug. 24, 2011 nearly 6 million miles distant from Earth visualized by NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System website.

Read my continuing features about Juno
Juno Blasts off on Science Trek to Discover Jupiter’s Genesis
Juno Jupiter Orbiter poised at Launch Pad for Aug. 5 Blastoff
JUNO Orbiter Mated to Mightiest Atlas rocket for Aug. 5 Blastoff to Jupiter
Solar Powered Jupiter bound JUNO lands at Kennedy Space Center

In Their Own Words: Experts Talk Juno

Several scientists and experts discussed the Juno mission to Jupiter with Universe Today. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. – Many experts took time out of their hectic schedules to talk with Universe Today in the day leading up to the launch of the Juno spacecraft. Some even took the time to talk to us just minutes before the probe was scheduled to be launched on its mission. Check out what they had to say below:

Juno Project Scientist Steve Levin was at Kennedy Space Center to watch the Juno probe begin its five-year journey to Jupiter. He took a few minutes of his time to talk about what his expectations are for this mission.

Levin has been with JPL since 1990, one of the previous projects he worked on is the Planck mission which launched in 2009.

Levin believes that Juno could fundamentally change the way we view Jupiter. He was one of many VIPs that descended on Kennedy Space Center to watch as Juno thundered to orbit atop at Atlas V rocket.

Sami Asmar is part of the science team that is working on the Juno project. He was at the rollout of the Atlas rocket to the pad. Here is what he had to say about the mission (note the Atlas rocket moving out behind him).

Bill Nye the Science Guy was a very busy man while at Kennedy Space Center. He still took the time to chat with Universe Today about his views on this mission. Unfortunately, with little time to spare, we had to conduct the interview within minutes of the first launch attempt. A good chunk of Nye’s interview – was drowned out by the lead up to the countdown!

The usual launch of an Atlas consists of the launch team coming in, pushing a button and going home – the launch vehicle is that reliable. This day, things occurred quite differently. A technical issue coupled with a wayward boat that had drifted too close to the launch pad saw the launch time slip from 11:34 a.m. EDT to 12:25 p.m. When the rocket did take off however it was a spectacular sight to behold, faster than other iterations of the Atlas, it roared off the pad, sending Juno on its way to Jupiter.