New VISTA of Orion

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Oh-oh-oh Orion! The new VISTA (Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) infrared survey telescope has used its huge field of view to show the full splendor of the Orion Nebula. With its infrared eyes, it has peered deeply into dusty regions that are normally hidden to expose the curious behavior of the very active young stars buried there.

VISTA is the latest addition to ESO’s Paranal Observatory. It is the largest survey telescope in the world and is dedicated to mapping the sky at infrared wavelengths. The large (4.1-metre) mirror, wide field of view and very sensitive detectors make VISTA a unique instrument. This dramatic new image of the Orion Nebula illustrates VISTA’s remarkable powers.

The Orion Nebula is about 1,350 light-years from Earth. Although spectacular when seen through an ordinary telescope, what can be seen using visible light is only a small part of a cloud of gas in which stars are forming. Most of the action is deeply embedded in dust clouds and to see what is really happening astronomers need to use telescopes with detectors sensitive to the longer wavelength radiation that can penetrate the dust. VISTA has imaged the Orion Nebula at wavelengths about twice as long as can be detected by the human eye.

Four highlights of the new VISTA image of Orion. Credit: ESO

On the upper-left, the central region of VISTA’s view of the Orion Nebula is shown, centered on the four dazzling stars of the Trapezium. A rich cluster of young stars can be seen here that is invisible in normal, visible light images. In the lower-right panel the part of the nebula to the north of the center is shown. Here there are many young stars embedded in the dust clouds that are only apparent because their infrared glow can penetrate the dust and be detected by the VISTA camera. Many outflows, jets and other interactions from young stars are apparent, seen in the infrared glow from molecular hydrogen and showing up as red blobs. On the upper-right, a region to the west of center is shown. Here the fierce ultraviolet light from the Trapezium is sculpting the gas clouds into curious wavy shapes. A distant edge-on spiral galaxy is also seen shining right through the nebula. At the lower-left a region south of the center is shown. Each extract covers a region of sky about nine arcminutes across.

All these features are of great interest to astronomers studying the birth and youth of stars.

Source: ESO

As Seen on America’s Highways This Week

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Imagine driving along in your car, minding your own business and getting passed by this. It could happen to you this week. This is a 13.7 meter (45 feet) -long full-scale mock-up that’s part of the rocket assembly for the launch abort system for the new Orion crew exploration vehicle. The system hit the road on Tuesday, March 3, 2009, and is traveling from NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to undergo the first flight tests of the system. The launch abort system will allow the astronaut crew to safely escape in the event of an emergency during launch.

The mock-up, also known as the LAS pathfinder, represents the size, outer shape and specific mass characteristics of Orion’s abort system.

Artist's rendering of a Launch Abort System (LAS) in operation.  Credit:  Orbital
Artist's rendering of a Launch Abort System (LAS) in operation. Credit: Orbital

The real system will be composed of solid rocket motors, separation mechanisms, and an adapter structure to provide escape capability for the Orion crew from pad operations through ascent. The new design, built by Orbital Sciences Corp. is key in vastly improving the safety of the flight crew as compared to what the shuttle has.

In case you’re wondering, in the background are large, white vacuum spheres used at the hypersonic wind tunnel complex at Langley.

Source: NASA

The Bow Shock of Betelgeuse Revealed

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You may be familiar with Betelgeuse, as it is the upper-left star in the constellation Orion, forming what would be his shoulder. But this is an image of Betelgeuse that you wouldn’t see with your own eyes or even your own telescope. Images taken with the Akari infrared telescope show that as Betelgeuse travels through the interstellar medium, it creates what is called a “bow shock”.

Betelgeuse (pronounced “beetle-juice”, just like the 80’s film starring Michael Keaton) is a red supergiant 640 light-years from Earth, and is located in the winter constellation Orion. It travels through the interstellar medium at 30 km/sec (19 miles/sec). It’s not the star itself that creates the bow shock, but rather the interaction of the stellar wind emanating from Betelgeuse with the gas in the interstellar medium.

As Betelgeuse plows through the interstellar medium, the wind that it’s spewing out at 17 km/sec (11 miles/sec) warms up the surrounding gas – which originates from star-forming regions in Orion’s Belt – releasing light in the infrared. There is a rather strong current of interstellar gas in the area surrounding Betelegeuse, and just like the wave of water that is produced in front of a boat traveling over a lake, the dust and gas bunches up in front of Betelgeuse in the direction of travel.

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An artist's rendering of the bow shock created by Betelgeuse. Image Credit: ESA

The bow shock is approximately 3 light-years across, and the interaction it has with the stellar wind from Betelgeuse gives astronomers a better understanding of the density of the interstellar medium in the region, which in turn can help them get a better picture of the star forming regions in Orion’s Belt that are the source of the gas.

If you turned your telescope towards the Betelgeuse star, you sadly would not be able to see the bow shock. Akari created the image using a composite of images taken at 65 (blue), 90 (green) and 140 (red) micrometers, well below what the human eye can see.

Source: ESA, Bad Astronomy

Volunteers Sweat for NASA

For three weeks, 23 volunteers spent time helping NASA test a new life support system for the spacecraft that will replace the shuttle. Five volunteers at a time would squeeze into a special room the size of a walk-in closet for eight hours. Sweating and heavy breathing was encouraged, as scientists at Johnson Space Center wanted to measure the amount of moisture and carbon dioxide absorbed by a new system designed to control carbon dioxide and humidity inside a crew capsule in order to make air breathable and living space more comfortable. The tests took place from April 14 to May 1 of this year and are some of the first to use human subjects in support of NASA’s Orion crew capsule, Altair lunar lander and lunar rovers.

“We’re moving from paper studies to tests with hardware that will evolve and become part of the spacecraft that will fly back to the moon,” said test volunteer and NASA engineer Evan Thomas at Johnson.

Known as the Carbon-dioxide and Moisture Removal Amine Swing-bed, or CAMRAS, the new system will help sustain life on exploration vehicles and reduce the dependence on resupply from Earth.

“Our goal for CAMRAS is to develop a simple, regenerative, lightweight device that will work for both the Orion crew capsule and the Altair lunar lander,” said lead researcher Jeff Sweterlitsch.

The Exploration Life Support project also is developing technologies that will recover oxygen and water vapor, recycle spacecraft wastewater into drinking water and recover usable resources from wastes.

This series of tests put volunteers inside a test chamber scaled to be the size of the Orion crew capsule, about 570 cubic feet. The volunteers, who were selected and grouped to replicate a typical crew, were asked to sleep, eat and exercise during test sessions that lasted from a few hours to overnight.

“The air smelled a little artificial, like on a plane, and it was a little crowded,” said Aaron Hetherington, one of the volunteers and a director for the test. “But the air was fine; the temperature comfortable. My biggest observation is that it was unremarkable, which is good because that means the hardware was working.”

Two additional phases of testing on CAMRAS are planned.

Video of the tests are available on NASA TV

Original News Source: NASA Press Release

NASA is Building its Biggest Lightning Protection System

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We’ve already learned that NASA is planning to build one of the world’s largest roller coasters to help astronauts escape a disaster. Now they’ve released details about how they’re going to protect the next generation spacecraft from lightning strikes. They’ll need it. This is Florida after all, one of the most active regions for lightning in the United States.

When the space shuttle finally retires in 2010, NASA will be nearly ready to start launching the next generation Ares I launch vehicle. A single lightning strike could scramble spacecraft electronics, or injure the crew, so NASA is working on their defense system.

And for Ares, they’re going to big. In fact, when you look at the Ares I launch pad in a few years, the lightning protection system will dominate the skyline.

The lightning protection system, now under construction at Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39B consists of three towers – each of which will be 181 metres (594 feet) tall. Cables will then be strung between the steel/fibreglass towers, encasing the smaller Ares I booster in a cage of protection.

Similar, smaller systems have been used for other missions in the past. For the Apollo launchers, the protection system was built into the launch structure. Obviously this was less than ideal, since lightning strikes could still damage the rocket and electronics.

For the space shuttle, there’s a lightning mast atop the launch pad’s service structure. The system diverts lightning strikes down two wires, keeping the current away from the shuttle.

By building these towers completely apart from the launch pad, NASA hopes to minimize delays to the launch schedule.

Construction for the towers began in November, and should be complete by 2010. This will actually be a little after the first Ares I-X rocket blasts off, in April 2009.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Prototype Heat Shield for Orion

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I know what you’re thinking, and no, that’s not a UFO in a secret government laboratory. It’s not a prop for an upcoming science fiction movie, and it’s not the world’s largest Frisbee. It’s a prototype heat shield, developed by Boeing for NASA’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle.

When Orion returns from space, it needs to decelerate from orbital velocity to be able to land safely. Just like the space shuttle, the capsule will point this heat ablating surface into the atmosphere, and let it get super hot. The heat shield can rise to extremely high temperatures, while the astronauts stay nice and safe.

The lunar protective system will need to be much more capable that the shuttle’s system, since capsules will be returning directly to the Earth after flying from the Moon. In some cases, Orion’s thermal protection will face 5 times as much heat as vehicles returning from the International Space Station. That’s hot.

It was the catastrophic failure of Columbia’s heat shield that doomed it when it was re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Needless to say, NASA wants to get this right.

The contract for the new Thermal Protection System was awarded to Boeing Advanced Systems about a year ago. Last month, a NASA Ames technical and quality inspection team completed an acceptance review of the shield.

The shield is made from Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA). That’s a mouthful, but it uses a special trick to keep the capsule cool. As the heat shield heats up during reentry, the PICA material “ablates”. It chars, melts and then sublimates to create a cool boundary layer that protects the spacecraft.

Boeing will continue working on the heat shield, to meet Orion’s TPS preliminary design review in early 2008.

Original Source: Boeing News Release

First Look at the Orion Crew Module

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I know it seems like we’ve had the space shuttle forever, and will have it forever, but the program will actually be shut down in just a few short years. What comes next? The Constellation program will continue the US human spaceflight efforts, eventually bringing people back to the Moon. As part of the program, workers at NASA unveiled a mockup of the Orion crew module.

The lifesize Orion crew module was build by engineers at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center’s Fabrication Branch. No, this aluminum mockup won’t actually be flying. It won’t even be used for aerodynamic testing. It’s just going to help engineers figure out how to cram everything in.

As the engineers are developing the various avionics systems, instrumentation, wire harness routing, etc, they’ll want a life-size mockup of the module to test how things fit together. Eventually, you can imagine future astronauts crawling inside, and giving engineers their feedback on the placement of the instrumentation, the feel of the controls, and cushiness of the seats.

This mockup will help engineers until the first abort flight test vehicle, called “Boilerplate 1” arrives for testing. This next testing vehicle is a flying simulator that will mimic the flight characteristics of the actual vehicle. Boilerplate 1 will have the same mass, dimensions, and aerodynamic properties of the Orion capsule, so it can be tested in wind tunnels and atop rockets.

NASA is planning two pad abort, and four ascent tests of the launch abort system as early as 2008, and continuing on through 2011.

So, don’t worry, the age of the space shuttle is almost over, and the age of the Constellation program is almost here. Look out Moon, here we come.

Original Source: NASA Dryden News Release