Earth’s Third Moon Discovered

An amateur astronomer has discovered what could be a new object orbiting the Earth; maybe it’s a recently captured space rock, or maybe it’s just a remnant from the Apollo program. Whatever it is, the object, dubbed J002E2, seems to orbit the Earth every 50-days in a wide orbit. If it turns out to be natural, the object will become the Earth’s 3rd moon (and you only thought we had one), after Cruithne which was discovered in 1986 in a long erratic orbit. (BBC News Story)

Atlantis Returns to the Launch Pad

The Space Shuttle Atlantis made the four-hour journey to its launch pad today, demonstrating that the shuttle fleet is ready to fly again. Atlantis and the rest of the fleet were grounded for the last few months so that technicians could weld tiny cracks that had formed along the shuttle’s fuel lines. NASA also had to repair cracked bearings on the 37-year old transporter. Atlantis may launch as soon as October 2nd.

One Year Since September 11th

Here you go, one year later, a collection of images taken by the IKONOS satellite. You can see the original World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon before the attacks, shortly after, and then over the course of the last year through the cleanup process – a colossal tragedy seen from an altitude of 680 km.

Take care,

Fraser Cain
Publisher, Universe Today

Research Uncovers New Kuiper Belt Mystery

Image credit: SWRI

Although the Kuiper Belt, a region of icy objects located past the orbit of Neptune, was only discovered in 1992, it’s already presented a host of mysteries. One mystery is why an unusually large number of these objects have small satellites orbiting them – 8 out of the 500 objects discovered so far have had satellites. The high number brings into question the traditional theory that they’re caused by collisions.

The Kuiper Belt region of the solar system, which stretches from just past Neptune to beyond the farthest reaches of Pluto?s orbit, was only discovered in 1992, but continues to reveal new knowledge into the formation processes of the planets. Now, in a paper to be published in the October issue of The Astronomical Journal, a Southwest Research Institute? (SwRI?) scientist reveals a new mystery about Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).

The study examined the formation of KBO satellites, which have been observed only since 2001 and continue to be discovered around an unexpectedly large number of the more than 500 known KBOs.

?In just over a year since the first satellite of a KBO was found, scientists have discovered a total of seven KBO satellites. Surprisingly, observations by both ground-based telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope have indicated that, in many cases, the KBO satellites are as large or nearly as large as the KBOs around which they orbit,? says Dr. S. Alan Stern, director of the SwRI Space Studies Department. ?That so many binary or quasi-binary KBOs exist came as a real surprise to the research community.?

The focus of Stern?s work was not observational in nature, but rather it sought to understand how such large KBO-satellite pairs could form. The standard model for large satellite formation is based on collisions between an interloping body and the parent object around which the satellite orbits. This model has successfully explained binary systems around asteroids and the Pluto-Charon system, and also has direct relevance to the formation of the Earth-moon system.

Stern?s findings call into question the formation of KBO satellites by standard collisional processes. Collisions of the magnitude required, Stern found, appear to be energetically improbable, given the number and masses of potential impactors in both the ancient (more massive) and modern day (eroded) Kuiper Belts.

This likely implies one of two alternatives: Either KBO satellites were not formed by collisions, as has been commonly assumed, or the surface reflectivities (which help determine size) of KBOs with satellites, or the reflectivity of the satellites themselves, have been significantly underestimated.

?If the surfaces of KBOs with satellites, or the satellites themselves, are more reflective than previously thought,? says Stern, ?these objects would be smaller and less massive, and would therefore require smaller, less energetic impacts to create the satellite systems we see.?

NASA?s new Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), set for launch early next year, will help resolve these two alternatives, Stern says, by directly measuring the reflectivities and sizes of numerous KBOs, including those with satellites.

In addition to this work, Stern serves as principal investigator of the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Expected to launch in January 2006, this spacecraft will make the first ever flyby reconnaissance of the Pluto and Charon system and then go on to explore KBOs as it leaves the solar system. New Horizons is the only NASA mission planned to study Kuiper Belt Objects at close range.

The NASA Origins of Solar Systems program provided funding for this research.

Original Source: SWRI News Release

NASA Awards $825 Million Contract for Hubble Successor

Image credit: NASA

NASA announced today that it has awarded an $825 million contract to aerospace firm TRW to build the replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope: The James Webb Space Telescope. Named for NASA’s second administrator, this new observatory will launch in 2010 and operate 1.5 million km away from the Earth (Hubble is in low-Earth orbit). If all goes as planned, the observatory’s 6 metre mirror will offer a tremendous leap in resolution over Hubble.

NASA today selected TRW, Redondo Beach, Calif., to build a next-generation successor to the Hubble Space Telescope in honor of the man who led NASA in the early days of the fledgling aerospace agency.

The space-based observatory will be known as the James Webb Space Telescope, named after James E. Webb, NASA’s second administrator. While Webb is best known for leading Apollo and a series of lunar exploration programs that landed the first humans on the Moon, he also initiated a vigorous space science program, responsible for more than 75 launches during his tenure, including America’s first interplanetary explorers.

“It is fitting that Hubble’s successor be named in honor of James Webb. Thanks to his efforts, we got our first glimpses at the dramatic landscapes of outer space,” said NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe. “He took our nation on its first voyages of exploration, turning our imagination into reality. Indeed, he laid the foundations at NASA for one of the most successful periods of astronomical discovery. As a result, we’re rewriting the textbooks today with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and, in 2010, the James Webb Telescope.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled for launch in 2010 aboard an expendable launch vehicle. It will take about three months for the spacecraft to reach its destination, an orbit 940,000 miles or 1.5 million kilometers in space, called the second Lagrange Point or L2, where the spacecraft is balanced between the gravity of the Sun and the Earth.

Unlike Hubble, space shuttle astronauts will not service the James Webb Space Telescope because it will be too far away.

The most important advantage of this L2 orbit is that a single-sided sun shield on only one side of the observatory can protect Webb from the light and heat of both the Sun and Earth. As a result, the observatory can be cooled to very low temperatures without the use of complicated refrigeration equipment. These low temperatures are required to prevent the Webb’s own heat radiation from exceeding the brightness of the distant cool astronomical objects.

Before and during launch, the mirror will be folded up. Once the telescope is placed in its orbit, ground controllers will send a message telling the telescope to unfold its high-tech mirror petals.

To see into the depths of space, the James Webb Space Telescope is currently planned to carry instruments that are sensitive to the infrared wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. The new telescope will carry a near-infrared camera, a multi-object spectrometer and a mid-infrared

The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to look deeper into the universe than Hubble because of the increased light- collecting power of its larger mirror and the extraordinary sensitivity of its instruments to infrared light. Webb’s primary mirror will be at least 20 feet in diameter, providing much more light gathering capability than Hubble’s eight-foot primary mirror.

The telescope’s infrared capabilities are required to help astronomers understand how galaxies first emerged out of the darkness that followed the rapid expansion and cooling of the universe just a few hundred million years after the big bang. The light from the youngest galaxies is seen in the infrared due to the universe’s expansion.

Looking closer to home, the James Webb Space Telescope will probe the formation of planets in disks around young stars, and study supermassive black holes in other galaxies.

Under the terms of the contract valued at $824.8 million, TRW will design and fabricate the observatory’s primary mirror and spacecraft. TRW also will be responsible for integrating the science instrument module into the spacecraft as well as performing the pre-flight testing and on-orbit checkout of the observatory.

The Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., manages the James Webb Space Telescope for the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The program has a number of industry, academic and government partners, as well as the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Japanese H-IIA Launches

Image credit: NASDA

A Japanese H-2A rocket successfully launched from Tanegashima Space Center today, carrying two experimental satellites. It launched the Unmanned Space Experiment Recovery System (USERS) spacecraft and the Data Relay Test Satellite (DRTS). This is the third successful launch of the H-2A; an upgrade over the H-2 rocket program which suffered a string of launch failures in the 1990s.

The National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA) launched the Advanced Earth Observing Satellite-II (ADEOS-II) by H-IIA Launch Vehicle No. 4 (H-IIA F4) at 10:31 a.m. on December 14, 2002 (Japan Standard Time) from the Tanegashima Space Center. The initial azimuth of H-IIA F4 was 122 degrees. H-IIA F4 flight went normally, and it was confirmed that ADEOS-II was successfully separated in 16 minutes and 31 seconds after liftoff.

Original Source: NASDA News Release

Grace Maps the Earth’s Gravitational Field

The US-German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment mission (aka Grace) has taken the last two weeks to produce the most detailed map of the Earth’s gravitational field – lumps and all. Launched in March, the twin spacecraft have been orbiting the planet 16 times a day, 220 km apart from one another. A ground-based microwave ranging system measures the distance between them to see how they speed up and slow down due to changes in gravity. And this is just the low res version; scientists hope to have even more detailed maps by the end of the year.

NASA Highlights New Ways to Journey Through Space

Image credit: NASA

As everybody knows, chemical rockets are too slow for space exploration. So, to speed up voyages around our Solar System, NASA is working on some new kinds of propulsion: ion engines, solar and plasma sails. Perhaps the most efficient will be hybrid systems, with different kinds of propulsion used at different points of a journey. This article gives you a breakdown of the technologies NASA’s currently working on.

“Mom, are we there yet?”

Every parent has heard that cry from the back seat of the car. It usually begins about 15 minutes after the start of any family trip. Good thing we rarely travel more than a few hundred or a few thousand miles from home.

But what if you were traveling to, say, Mars? Even at its closest approach to Earth every couple years, the red planet is always at least 35 million miles away. Six months there and six months back–at best.

“Houston, are we there yet?”
“Chemical rockets are just too slow,” laments Les Johnson, manager for in-space transportation technologies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “They burn all their propellant at the beginning of a flight and then the spacecraft just coasts the rest of the way.” Although spacecraft can be sped up by gravity assist–a celestial crack-the-whip around planets, such as the one around Saturn that flung Voyager 1 to the edge of the solar system–round-trip travel times between planets are still measured in years to decades. And a journey to the nearest star would take centuries if not millennia.

Worse yet, chemical rockets are just too fuel-inefficient. Think of driving in a gas guzzler across a country with no gas stations. You’d have to carry boatloads of gas and not much else. In space missions, what you can carry on your trip that isn’t fuel (or tanks for fuel) is called the payload mass–e.g., people, sensors, samplers, communications gear and food. Just as gas mileage is a useful figure of merit for the fuel efficiency of a car, the “payload mass fraction”–the ratio of a mission’s payload mass to its total mass–is a useful figure of merit for the efficiency of propulsion systems.

With today’s chemical rockets, payload mass fraction is low. “Even using a minimum-energy trajectory to send a six-person crew from Earth to Mars, with chemical rockets alone the total launch mass would top 1,000 metric tons–of which some 90 percent would be fuel,” said Bret G. Drake, manager for space launch analysis and integration at Johnson Space Center. The fuel alone would weigh twice as much as the completed International Space Station.

A single Mars expedition with today’s chemical propulsion technology would require dozens of launches–most of which most would simply be launching chemical fuel. It’s as if your 1-ton compact car needed 9 tons of gasoline to drive from New York City to San Francisco because it averaged only a mile per gallon.

In other words, low-performance propulsion systems is one major reason why humans have not yet set foot on Mars.

More efficient propulsion systems increase the payload mass fraction by giving better “gas mileage” in space. Since you don’t need as much propellant, you can carry more stuff, go in a smaller vehicle, and/or get there faster and cheaper. “The key message is: we need advanced propulsion technologies to enable a low-cost mission to Mars,” Drake declared.

Thus, NASA is now developing ion drives, solar sails, and other exotic propulsion technologies that for decades have whooshed humans to other planets and stars–but only in the pages of science fiction.

From tortoise to hare
What are the science-fact options?

NASA is hard at work on two basic approaches. The first is to develop radically new rockets that have an order-of-magnitude better fuel economy than chemical propulsion. The second is to develop “propellant-free” systems that are powered by resources abundant in the vacuum of deep space.

All these technologies share one key characteristic: they start slowly, like the proverbial tortoise, but over time turn into a hare that actually wins a race to Mars–or wherever. They rely on the fact that a small continuous acceleration over months can ultimately propel a spacecraft far faster than one enormous initial kick followed by a long period of coasting.

Above: This low-thrust spaceship (an artist’s concept) is propelled by an ion engine and powered by solar electricity. Eventually the craft will pick up speed–a result of relentless acceleration–and race along at many miles per second. Image credit: John Frassanito & Associates, Inc.

Technically speaking, they’re all systems with low thrust (meaning you would barely feel the oh-so-gentle acceleration, equivalent to that of the weight of a piece of paper lying on your palm) but long operating times. After months of continuing small acceleration, you’d be clipping along at many miles per second! In contrast, chemical propulsion systems are high thrust and short operating times. You’re crushed back into the seat cushions while the engines are firing, but only briefly. After that the tank is empty.

Fuel-efficient rockets
“A rocket is anything that throws something overboard to propel itself forward,” Johnson pointed out. (Don’t believe that definition? Sit on a skateboard with a high-pressure hose pointed one way, and you will be propelled in the opposite way).

Leading candidates for the advanced rocket are variants of ion engines. In current ion engines, the propellant is a colorless, tasteless, odorless inert gas, such as xenon. The gas fills a magnet-ringed chamber through which runs an electron beam. The electrons strike the gaseous atoms, knocking away an outer electron and turning neutral atoms into positively-charged ions. Electrified grids with many holes (15,000 in today’s versions) focus the ions toward the spaceship’s exhaust. The ions shoot past the grids at speeds of up to more than 100,000 miles per hour (compare that to an Indianapolis 500 racecar at 225 mph)–accelerating out the engine into space, so producing thrust.

Where does the electricity come from to ionize the gas and charge the engine? Either from solar panels (so-called solar electric propulsion) or from fission or fusion (so-called nuclear electric propulsion). Solar electric propulsion engines would be most effective for robotic missions between the sun and Mars, and nuclear electric propulsion for robotic missions beyond Mars where sunlight is weak or for human missions where speed is of the essence.

Ion drives work. They’ve proven their mettle not only in tests on Earth, but in working spacecraft–the best-known being Deep Space 1, a small technology-testing mission powered by solar electric propulsion that flew by and took pictures of Comet Borrelly in September, 2001. Ion drives like the one that propelled Deep Space 1 are about 10 times as efficient as chemical rockets.

Propellant-free systems
The lowest-mass propulsion systems, however, may be those that carry no on-board propellant at all. In fact, they’re not even rockets. Instead, in true pioneer style, they “live off the land”–relying for energy on natural resources abundant in space, much as pioneers of yore relied for food on trapping animals and finding roots and berries on the frontier.

The two leading candidates are solar sails and plasma sails. Although the effect is similar, the operating mechanisms are very different.

A solar sail consists of an enormous area of gossamer, highly reflective material that is unfurled in deep space to capture light from the sun (or from a microwave or laser beam from Earth). For very ambitious missions, sails could range up to many square kilometers in area.

Solar sails take advantage of the fact that solar photons, although having no mass, do have momentum–several micronewtons (about the weight of a coin) per square meter at the distance of Earth. This gentle radiation pressure will slowly but surely accelerate the sail and its payload away from the sun, reaching speeds of up to 150,000 miles per hour, or more than 40 miles per second.

A common misconception is that solar sails catch the solar wind, a stream of energetic electrons and protons that boil away from the Sun’s outer atmosphere. Not so. Solar sails get their momentum from sunlight itself. It is possible, however, to tap the momentum of the solar wind using so-called “plasma sails.”

Plasma sails are modeled on Earth’s own magnetic field. Powerful on-board electromagnets would surround a spacecraft with a magnetic bubble 15 or 20 kilometers across. High-speed charged particles in the solar wind would push the magnetic bubble, just as they do Earth’s magnetic field. Earth doesn’t move when it’s pushed in this way–our planet is too massive. But a spacecraft would be gradually shoved away from the Sun. (An added bonus: just as Earth’s magnetic field shields our planet from solar explosions and radiation storms, so would a magnetic plasma sail protect the occupants of a spacecraft.)

Above: An artist’s concept of a space probe inside a magnetic bubble (or “plasma sail”). Charged particles in the solar wind hit the bubble, apply pressure, and propel the spacecraft. [more]

Of course, the original, tried-and-true propellant-free technology is gravity assist. When a spacecraft swings by a planet, it can steal some of the planet’s orbital momentum. This hardly makes a difference to a massive planet, but it can impressively boost the velocity of a spacecraft. For example, when Galileo swung by Earth in 1990, the speed of the spacecraft increased by 11,620 mph; meanwhile Earth slowed down in its orbit by an amount less than 5 billionths of an inch per year. Such gravity assists are valuable in supplementing any form of propulsion system.

Okay, now that you’ve zipping through interplanetary space, how do you slow down at your destination enough to go into a parking orbit and prepare for landing? With chemical propulsion, the usual technique is to fire retrorockets–once again, requiring large masses of onboard fuel.

A far more economical option is promised by aerocapture–braking the spacecraft by friction with the destination planet’s own atmosphere. The trick, of course, is not to let a high-speed interplanetary spacecraft burn up. But NASA scientists feel that, with an appropriately designed heat shield, it would be possible for many missions to be captured into orbit around a destination planet with just one pass through its upper atmosphere.

“No single propulsion technology will do everything for everybody,” Johnson cautioned. Indeed, solar sails and plasma sails would likely be useful primarily for propelling cargo rather than humans from Earth to Mars, because “it takes too long for those technologies to get up to escape velocity,” Drake added.

Nonetheless, a hybrid of several technologies could prove to be very economical indeed in getting a manned mission to Mars. In fact, a combination of chemical propulsion, ion propulsion, and aerocapture could reduce the launch mass of a 6-person Mars mission to below 450 metric tons (requiring only six launches)–less than half that attainable with chemical propulsion alone.

Such a hybrid mission might go like this: Chemical rockets, as usual, would get the spacecraft off the ground. Once in low-Earth orbit, ion drive modules would ignite, or ground controllers might deploy a solar or plasma sail. For 6 to 12 months, the spaceship–temporarily unmanned to avoid exposing the crew to large doses of radiation in Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts–would spiral away, gradually accelerating up to a final high Earth-departure orbit. The crew would then be ferried out to the Mars vehicle in a high-speed taxi; a small chemical stage would then kick the vehicle up to escape velocity, and it would head onward to Mars.

As Earth and Mars revolve in their respective orbits, the relative geometry between the two planets is constantly changing. Although launch opportunities to Mars occur every 26 months, the optimal alignments for the cheapest, fastest possible trips happen every 15 years–the next one coming in 2018.

Perhaps by then we’ll have a different answer to the question, “Houston, are we there yet?”

Original Source: NASA Science Story

Bass Ejected from Space Mission

Russian space officials sent a letter to their partners today, announcing that astronaut candidate, and ‘N Sync member, Lance Bass was kicked off October’s Soyuz mission to the International Space Station. Apparently the sponsors for the trip were unable to raise the $20 million required to finance the mission, so the Russians finally pulled the plug. Of course, the trip promoters are optimistic; if they can find a sponsor for the trip, and convince Russian officials that Bass can still sneak on board then maybe, just maybe, the 23 year old singer will get his shot into space. (MSNBC story)

Don’t Worry, Everything’s Fine

I apologize for the extensive delays in the last month. I’ve had a series of problems conspire together to keep me from being able to maintain Universe Today: a busted computer, a move to a new house, more work, no Internet, and the attentions of a 10 month old daughter. I think we’re through the worst of it. Thanks for all your support. 🙂

Fraser Cain