3 Dead, 3 Injured at SpaceShipTwo Explosion

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What a terrible couple of days for spaceflight. I thought NASA was having a tough time with its drunken astronauts and sabotage, but that pales in comparison to what happened in the Mojave Desert yesterday.

As you’ve probably heard by now, a rocket test facility for Scaled Composites exploded on Thursday, killing 3 workers, and injuring 3 more.

The workers were performing a “cold test fire”, where nitrous oxide was pumped through engine components for SpaceShipTwo. This was supposed to be a fairly routine and safe thing to be testing. It’s not like they were igniting the system. Something obviously went wrong, and the whole engine system detonated. If you look at the associated picture from KCAL, you’ve got to realize that there used to be a flatbed trailer there.

2 of the workers died on the scene, and the others were rushed to Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield. 1 died from injuries Friday morning. 2 remain in critical condition, and 1 is in serious condition.

SpaceShipTwo is the follow-on design to SpaceShipOne. This is the spacecraft that won the X-Prize after it reached 100 km in altitude twice within two weeks. Entrepreneur Richard Branson ordered a new, larger version of SpaceShipOne be developed that could carry 7 people into space – the vehicles for his Virgin Galactic space tourism company. And so, Scaled Composites employees were working on the spacecraft’s hybrid rocket engine when the explosion occurred.

Burt Rutan arrived on the scene shortly after the accident, and spoke to reporters. He was surprised that it happened. According to Rutan, this test had been done many times before in the development of SpaceShipOne, and had been done once before for SpaceShipTwo.

I’m sure an investigation will be announced, and I’ll let you know the results once they’re in.

Original Source: CNN News Release

Dawn Mission Pushed Back to September

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One of my favourite upcoming missions is NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, set to go into orbit around two different asteroids. It was originally supposed to blast off this month, but mission planners have decided to push the launch back to September to minimize any potential disruptions to NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander mission, due for launch in early August.

I actually did an article on Dawn about a year ago. So instead of repeating that here, I’ll just link you to the article.

Original Source:NASA

NASA’s New Einstein Probes Office

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Albert Einstein made enough predictions about the nature of gravity and relativity that NASA has dedicated a whole office and fleet of spacecraft to him. This week the space agency announced their new Einstein Probes Office, where they’ll be compiling evidence for the strangest stuff in the Universe: dark energy, black holes, and the cosmic microwave background radiation.

The Beyond Einstein program consists of 5 proposed spacecraft; two major spacecraft, and 3 smaller probes. The two major missions are already in the works, and include the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which will orbit the Sun and measure gravitational waves. Constellation-X will watch matter falling into supermassive black holes.

The smaller probes include missions to investigate the nature of dark energy, the physics of the Big Bang, and the distribution and types of black holes in the universe. NASA has already approved preliminary studies into some of these missions.

NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy have put together a committee to figure out which missions should be launched first, and will release their findings in September, 2007.

Original Source:NASA Goddard

Genesis II Launches, Deploys Solar Panels

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Along with your jetpack, flying car, and moving sidewalks, a hotel in space is one of the great, undelivered promises of the future. Well, Bigelow Aerospace took another step towards fulfilling that promise last week with the launch of Genesis II, its prototype of an inflatable space hotel.

Genesis II was lofted into space atop Dnepr rocket on Thursday from the SC Kosmotras Yasny Cosmodrome in Russia. Shortly after launch, ground controllers confirmed a strong signal with the vehicle, confirming that it reached orbit.

On Friday, the habitat unfurled its solar panels, and inflated itself to its full width of 2.4 metres (8 feet).

Like it predecessor, Genesis 1, this spacecraft is a 1/3rd scale prototype of a future space hotel, designed to demonstrate various technologies and techniques needed for space tourism. The eventual plan is to put a manned habitat up by 2015, and then connect additional modules together to build up a space station.

Genesis II has 22 cameras, and many new systems that weren’t aboard Genesis I.

Original Source:Bigelow Aerospace

Servicing Spacecraft Makes an Automated Fly Around

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Launching a spacecraft is a big investment. If anything goes wrong, you’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars of junk in space. And even if the spacecraft is working perfectly, but just runs out of fuel, its communications equipment can’t be directed at the Earth properly.

Boeing took a step forward to solving that problem last week with a test of its Orbital Express system, a spacecraft that will validate on-orbit servicing. During a 5-hour test on June 16, the Autonomous Space Transport Robotic Operations (ASTRO) servicing spacecraft separated from another spacecraft, made an automated fly around, and then re-attached.

The important thing here is that the entire maneuver was done autonomously. It simulated the approach that a servicing spacecraft would take when docking with a spacecraft, making sure to avoid its antennas and cameras.

During its next test, ASTRO will depart and fly to a range of 4 km (2.5 miles) before approaching and performing a free-fly capture with its robotic arm.

Original Source: Boeing

European Space Jet Unveiled

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The European aerospace firm EADS Astrium revealed its plans for space tourism on Wednesday at a special event in Paris. The company also showed plans for a new space plane that it hopes will take customers up to space as early as 2012.

The Astrium space jet will take off and land from a conventional airport using jet engines. Once it reaches an altitude of 12 km, its rocket engines will ignite, and burn long enough to give it the momentum to reach 100 km of altitude. Passengers on board the plane will then get to enjoy a few moments of weightlessness, with a beautiful view of the Earth. Then it will descend, with its jet engines restarting, bringing it back to a safe landing. The whole journey should take about 90 minutes.

A vehicle like this could also be a precursor to suborbital space planes, which would provide rapid point-to-point transportation across the Earth.

Original Source: EADS Astrium News Release