Three Dusty Galaxy Images

Image credit: ESO

The European Southern Observatory has released three new images of distant spiral galaxies, which were taken while astronomers were searching for quasars. NGC 613 is a beautiful barred spiral galaxy in the southern constellation of Sculptor; NGC 1792 is a starburst spiral galaxy located in the southern constellation of Columba; and NGC 3627 is also known as Messier 66 and located in the constellation Leo.

Not so long ago, the real nature of the “spiral nebulae”, spiral-shaped objects observed in the sky through telescopes, was still unknown. This long-standing issue was finally settled in 1924 when the famous American astronomer Edwin Hubble provided conclusive evidence that they are located outside our own galaxy and are in fact “island universes” of their own.

Nowadays, we know that the Milky Way is just one of billions of galaxies in the Universe. They come in vastly different shapes – spiral, elliptical, irregular – and many of them are simply beautiful, especially the spiral ones.

Astronomers Mark Neeser from the Universit?ts-Sternwarte M?nchen (Germany) and Peter Barthel from the Kapteyn Institute in Groningen (The Netherlands) were clearly not insensitive to this when they obtained images of three beautiful spiral galaxies with ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). They did this in twilight during the early morning when they had to stop their normal observing programme, searching for very distant and faint quasars.

The resulting colour images (ESO PR Photos 33a-c/03) were produced by combining several CCD images in three different wavebands from the FORS multi-mode instruments.

The three galaxies are known as NGC 613, NGC 1792 and NGC 3627. They are characterized by strong far-infrared, as well as radio emission, indicative of substantial ongoing star-formation activity. Indeed, these images all display prominent dust as well as features related to young stars, clear signs of intensive star-formation.

NGC 613
NGC 613 is a beautiful barred spiral galaxy in the southern constellation Sculptor. This galaxy is inclined by 32 degrees and, contrary to most barred spirals, has many arms that give it a tentacular appearance.

Prominent dust lanes are visible along the large-scale bar. Extensive star-formation occurs in this area, at the ends of the bar, and also in the nuclear regions of the galaxy. The gas at the centre, as well as the radio properties are indicative of the presence of a massive black hole in the centre of NGC 613.

NGC 1792
NGC 1792 is located in the southern constellation Columba (The Dove) – almost on the border with the constellation Caelum (The Graving Tool) – and is a so-called starburst spiral galaxy. Its optical appearance is quite chaotic, due to the patchy distribution of dust throughout the disc of this galaxy. It is very rich in neutral hydrogen gas – fuel for the formation of new stars – and is indeed rapidly forming such stars. The galaxy is characterized by unusually luminous far-infrared radiation; this is due to dust heated by young stars.

M 66 (NGC 3627)
The third galaxy is NGC 3627, also known as Messier 66, i.e. it is the 66th object in the famous catalogue of nebulae by French astronomer Charles Messier (1730 – 1817). It is located in the constellation Leo (The Lion).

NGC 3627 is a beautiful spiral with a well-developed central bulge. It also displays large-scale dust lanes. Many regions of warm hydrogen gas are seen throughout the disc of this galaxy. The latter regions are being ionised by radiation from clusters of newborn stars. Very active star-formation is most likely also occurring in the nuclear regions of NGC 3627.

The galaxy forms, together with its neighbours M 65 and NGC 3628, the so-called “Leo Triplet”; they are located at a distance of about 35 million light-years. M 66 is the largest of the three. Its spiral arms appear distorted and displaced above the main plane of the galaxy. The asymmetric appearance is most likely due to gravitational interaction with its neighbours.

Original Source: ESO News Release

Delta II Launches GPS Satellite

Image credit: Boeing

A Boeing Delta II rocket successfully launched a Global Positioning System satellite for the US Air Force on December 21. The rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 0805 UTC (3:05 EST), and the satellite was deployed 68 minutes later. The satellite, designated GPS IIR-10 was the tenth of 21 IIR class GPS satellites that Boeing will be responsible for launching. The next scheduled Delta launch will also be carrying a GPS satellite; it’s expected to lift off in early 2004.

A Boeing [NYSE: BA] Delta II rocket has successfully deployed a Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite for the U.S. Air Force. This satellite, GPS IIR-10, was the tenth of 21 IIR class GPS satellites Boeing will launch for the Air Force.

Liftoff of the Delta II occurred at 3:05 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 17A, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The deployment sequence was completed in 68 minutes at 4:13 a.m. EST.

The GPS satellite, which will orbit nearly 11,000 miles above the Earth, was launched aboard a Delta II 7925-9.5 vehicle.

?Our Delta team has done an outstanding job in supporting the customer, by providing another flawless launch,? said Dan Collins, vice president and program manager, Delta Programs, for Boeing. ?This successful `Delta launch re-affirms our pride in being a part of the GPS program, which is so vital to our nation?s national security.?

Operated by U.S. Air Force Space Command, the GPS constellation provides precise navigation and timing to worldwide military and civilian users 24-hours a day, in all weather conditions. For the warfighter, GPS has enabled the development and use of cost-effective precision guided munitions, and is considered a major component of DoD?s transformational architecture plans.

The next Delta II mission will carry the GPS IIR-11satellite, with the launch scheduled for the first quarter of 2004 from SLC-17B, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

Boeing Launch Services Inc., based in Huntington Beach, Calif., is responsible for the marketing and sales of the Sea Launch and Delta family of launch vehicles to Boeing national security, civil space and commercial customers.
A unit of The Boeing Company, Integrated Defense Systems is one of the world?s largest space and defense businesses. Headquartered in St. Louis, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems is a $25 billion business. It provides systems solutions to its global military, government, and commercial customers. It is a leading provider of intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance; the world?s largest military aircraft manufacturer; the world?s largest satellite manufacturer and a leading provider of space-based communications; the primary systems integrator for U.S. missile defense; NASA?s largest contractor; and a global leader in launch services.

Original Source: Boeing News Release

Rovers Will Dig Trenches with Their Wheels

Image credit: NASA/JPL

Scientists are always looking for more ways to cram scientific instruments into spacecraft, and they’ve come up with an innovative idea for the Mars Exploration rovers: using the wheels to dig trenches to see what the environment on Mars is like a few centimetres beneath the surface. Researchers from Cornell University perfected a technique where the rover locks all but one of its six wheels, and then uses the final wheel to churn up the dirt – tests in the lab allowed them to get at material which was more than 10 cm deep.

After the twin Mars Exploration Rovers bounce onto the red planet and begin touring the Martian terrain in January, onboard spectrometers and cameras will gather data and images — and the rovers’ wheels will dig holes.

Working together, a Cornell University planetary geologist and a civil engineer have found a way to use the wheels to study the Martian soil by digging the dirt with a spinning wheel. “It’s nice to roll over geology, but every once in a while you have to pull out a shovel, dig a hole and find out what is really underneath your feet,” says Robert Sullivan, senior research associate in space sciences and a planetary geology member of the Mars mission’s science team. He devised the plan with Harry Stewart, Cornell associate professor of civil engineering, and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena.

The researchers perfected a digging method to lock all but one of a rover’s wheels on the Martian surface. The remaining wheel will spin, digging the surface soil down about 5 inches, creating a crater-shaped hole that will enable the remote study of the soil’s stratigraphy and an analysis of whether water once existed. For controllers at JPL, the process will involve complicated maneuvers — a “rover ballet,” according to Sullivan — before and after each hole is dug to coordinate and optimize science investigations of each hole and its tailings pile.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y., is managing the science suite of instruments carried by the two rovers.

Each rover has a set of six wheels carved from aluminum blocks, and inside each wheel hub is a motor. To spin a wheel independently, JPL operators will simply switch off the other five wheel motors. Sullivan, Stewart and Cornell undergraduates Lindsey Brock and Craig Weinstein used Cornell’s Takeo Mogami Geotechnical Laboratory to examine various soil strengths and characteristics. They also used Cornell’s George Winter Civil Infrastructure Laboratory to test the interaction of a rover wheel with the soil. Each rover wheel has spokes arranged in a spiral pattern, with strong foam rubber between the spokes; these features will help the rover wheels function as shock absorbers while rolling over rough terrain on Mars.

In November, Sullivan used JPL’s Martian terrain proving ground to collect data on how a rover wheel interacts with different soil types and loose sand. He used yellow, pink and green sand — dyed with food coloring and baked by Brock. Sullivan used a stack of large picture frames to layer the different colored sands to observe how a wheel churned out sloping tailings piles and where the yellow, pink and green sand finally landed. “Locations where the deepest colors were concentrated on the surface suggest where analysis might be concentrated when the maneuver is repeated for real on Mars,” he says.

Stewart notes similarities between these tests and those for the lunar-landing missions in the late-1960s, when engineers needed to know the physical characteristics of the moon’s surface. Back then, geologists relied on visual observations from scouting missions to determine if the lunar lander would sink or kick up dust, or whether the lunar surface was dense or powdery.

“Like the early lunar missions, we’ll be doing the same thing, only this time examining the characteristics of the Martian soil,” Stewart says. “We’ll be exposing fresh material to learn the mineralogy and composition.”

Original Source: Cornell News Release

Chandra Observes Supernova Remnant

Image credit: Chandra

A new image released from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory shows a glowing shell of gas created by the explosion of a massive star. The supernova remnant is called N63A, and thought to be 2,000 to 5,000 years old; it’s located in the Large Magellanic Cloud. A comparison of this image with optical and radio observations show that the shockwave of material is engulfing the entire cloud of material, heating it up to ten million degrees Celsius.

Chandra has imaged the glowing shell created by the destruction of a massive star. X-rays from Chandra (blue), combined with optical (green) and radio (red) data, reveal new details in the supernova remnant known as N63A, located in the nearby galaxy of the Large Magellanic Cloud.

The X-ray glow is from material heated to about ten million degrees Celsius by a shock wave generated by the supernova explosion. The age of the remnant is estimated to be in the range of 2,000 to 5,000 years.

Optical and radio light are brightest in the central region of the remnant, which appears as a triangular-shaped “hole” in the X-ray image. The hole is produced by absorption of X-rays in a dense cloud of cooler gas and dust on the side of the remnant nearest the Earth. A comparison of the X-ray image with the radio and optical images suggests that the shock wave is engulfing this massive cloud, so we see only the edge nearest the Earth. Collisions such as this are thought to trigger the formation of new generations of stars.

The fluffy crescent-shaped X-ray features that appear around the edge of the remnant are thought to be fragments of high-speed matter shot out from the star when it exploded, like shrapnel from a bomb. In the only other supernova remnant (the Vela supernova remnant) where such features have been observed, the crescent shapes are clearly produced by ejecta fragments. An alternative explanation is that they were produced when the shock wave swept over less-massive clouds located several light years away from the site of the explosion.

Original Source: Chandra News Release

Paul Allen is Backing SpaceShipOne

Scaled Composites has confirmed that billionaire Paul Allen is the financial backer for the company’s SpaceShipOne suborbital rocket plane – a rumour that’s been circulating in the space industry for several months. Allen’s announcement coincided with SpaceShipOne’s recent flight test which broke the sound barrier. Allen is the third richest person in the United States with an estimate wealth of $22 billion.

Beagle 2 Separates from Mars Express

Image credit: ESA

The European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft successfully released the British-built Beagle 2 lander this morning, completing a major milestone on its trip to Mars. Mars Express fired a pyrotechnic device which slowly released a spring and separated the two spacecraft. Since Beagle 2 has no propulsion system, controllers have no way of fine-tuning the lander’s flight path. If everything goes as planned, Beagle 2 will enter the planet’s atmosphere on December 25.

This morning, ESA’s Mars Express flawlessly released the Beagle 2 lander that it has been carrying since its launch on 2 June this year. Beagle 2 is now on its journey towards the surface of Mars, where it is expected to land early in the morning of 25 December. Mars Express, Europe’s first mission to Mars, has passed another challenging milestone on its way towards its final destination.

At 9:31 CET, the crucial sequence started to separate the Beagle 2 lander from Mars Express. As data from Mars Express confirm, the pyrotechnic device was fired to slowly release a loaded spring, which gently pushed Beagle 2 away from the mother spacecraft. An image from the on-board visual monitoring camera (VMC) showing the lander drifting away is expected to be available later today.

Since the Beagle 2 lander has no propulsion system of its own, it had to be put on the correct course for its descent before it was released. For this reason, on 16 December, the trajectory of the whole Mars Express spacecraft had to be adjusted to ensure that Beagle 2 would be on course to enter the atmosphere of Mars. This manoeuvre, called ‘retargeting’, was critical: if the entry angle is too steep, the lander could overheat and burn up in the atmosphere; if the angle is too shallow, the lander might skim like a pebble on the surface of a lake and miss its target.

This fine targeting and today’s release were crucial manoeuvres for which ESA’s Ground Control Team at ESOC (European Space Operations Centre) had trained over the past several months. The next major milestone for Mars Express will be the manoeuvre to enter into orbit around Mars. This will happen at 2:52 CET on Christmas morning, when Beagle 2 is expected to land on the surface of Mars.

“Good teamwork by everybody – ESA, industry and the Beagle 2 team – has got one more critical step accomplished. Mars, here comes Europe!” said David Southwood, ESA Director of Science.

Original Source: ESA News Release

The Universe Used to Be More Blue

Image credit: ESO

Although the Universe is currently a beige colour overall, it used to be more blue, according to astronomers with the European Southern Observatory. This was caused by the predominantly hot, young blue stars in the most distant galaxies – astronomers are seeing them when the Universe was only 2.5 billion years old. The astronomers worked out the distance and colour to 300 galaxies which were contained within the Hubble Deep Sky survey, which took a deep look at a region of sky in the southern constellation of Tuscanae.

An international team of astronomers [1] has determined the colour of the Universe when it was very young. While the Universe is now kind of beige, it was much bluer in the distant past, at a time when it was only 2,500 million years old.

This is the outcome of an extensive and thorough analysis of more than 300 galaxies seen within a small southern sky area, the so-called Hubble Deep Field South. The main goal of this advanced study was to understand how the stellar content of the Universe was assembled and has changed over time.

Dutch astronomer Marijn Franx, a team member from the Leiden Observatory (The Netherlands), explains: “The blue colour of the early Universe is caused by the predominantly blue light from young stars in the galaxies. The redder colour of the Universe today is caused by the relatively larger number of older, redder stars.”

The team leader, Gregory Rudnick from the Max-Planck Institut f?r Astrophysics (Garching, Germany) adds: “Since the total amount of light in the Universe in the past was about the same as today and a young blue star emits much more light than an old red star, there must have been significantly fewer stars in the young Universe than there is now. Our new findings imply that the majority of stars in the Universe were formed comparatively late, not so long before our Sun was born, at a moment when the Universe was around 7,000 million years old.”

These new results are based on unique data collected during more than 100 hours of observations with the ISAAC multi-mode instrument at ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), as part of a major research project, the Faint InfraRed Extragalactic Survey (FIRES). The distances to the galaxies were estimated from their brightness in different optical near-infrared wavelength bands.

Observing the early Universe
It is now well known that the Sun was formed some 4.5 billion years ago. But when did most of the other stars in our home Galaxy form? And what about stars in other galaxies? These are some of the key questions in present-day astronomy, but they can only be answered by means of observations with the world’s largest telescopes.

One way to address these issues is to observe the very young Universe directly – by looking back in time. For this, astronomers take advantage of the fact that light emitted by very distant galaxies travels a long time before reaching us. Thus, when astronomers look at such remote objects, they see them as they appeared long ago.

Those remote galaxies are extremely faint, however, and these observations are therefore technically difficult. Another complication is that, due to the expansion of the Universe, light from those galaxies is shifted towards longer wavelengths [2], out of the optical wavelength range and into the infrared region.

In order to study those early galaxies in some detail, astronomers must therefore use the largest ground-based telescopes, collecting their faint light during very long exposures. In addition they must use infrared-sensitive detectors.

Telescopes as giant eyes
The “Hubble Deep Field South (HDF-S)” is a very small portion of the sky in the southern constellation Tucanae (“the Toucan”). It was selected for very detailed studies with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and other powerful telescopes. Optical images of this field obtained by the HST represent a total exposure time of 140 hours. Many ground-based telescopes have also obtained images and spectra of objects in this sky area, in particular the ESO telescopes in Chile.

A sky area of 2.5 x 2.5 arcmin2 in the direction of HDF-S was observed in the context of a thorough study (the Faint InfraRed Extragalactic Survey; FIRES, see ESO PR 23/02). It is slightly larger than the field covered by the WFPC2 camera on the HST, but still 100 times smaller than the area subtended by the full moon.

Whenever this field was visible from the ESO Paranal Observatory and the atmospheric conditions were optimal, ESO astronomers pointed the 8.2-m VLT ANTU telescope in this direction, taking near-infrared images with the ISAAC multi-mode instrument. Altogether, the field was observed for more than 100 hours and the resulting images (see ESO PR 23/02), are the deepest ground-based views in the near-infrared Js- and H-bands. The Ks-band image is the deepest ever obtained of any sky field in this spectral band, whether from the ground or from space.

These unique data provide an exceptional view and have now allowed unprecedented studies of the galaxy population in the young Universe. Indeed, because of the exceptional seeing conditions at Paranal, the data obtained with the VLT have an excellent image sharpness (a “seeing” of 0.48 arcsec) and can be combined with the HST optical data with almost no loss of quality.

A bluer colour
The astronomers were able to detect unambiguously about 300 galaxies on these images. For each of them, they measured the distance by determining the redshift [2]. This was done by means of a newly improved method that is based on the comparison of the brightness of each object in all the individual spectral bands with that of a set of nearby galaxies.

In this way, galaxies were found in the field with redshifts as high as z = 3.2, corresponding to distances around 11,500 million light-years. In other words, the astronomers were seeing the light of these very remote galaxies as they were when the Universe was only about 2.2 billion year old.

The astronomers next determined the amount of light emitted by each galaxy in such a way that the effects of the redshift were “removed”. That is, they measured the amount of light at different wavelengths (colours) as it would have been recorded by an observer near that galaxy. This, of course, only refers to the light from stars that are not heavily obscured by dust.

Summing up the light emitted at different wavelengths by all galaxies at a given cosmic epoch, the astronomers could then also determine the average colour of the Universe (the “cosmic colour”) at that epoch. Moreover, they were able to measure how that colour has changed, as the Universe became older.

They conclude that the cosmic colour is getting redder with time. In particular, it was much bluer in the past; now, at the age of nearly 14,000 million years, the Universe has a kind of beige colour.

When did stars form ?
The change of the cosmic colour with time may be interesting in itself, but it is also an essential tool for determining how rapidly stars were assembled in the Universe.

Indeed, while the star-formation in individual galaxies may have complicated histories, sometimes accelerating into true “star-bursts”, the new observations – now based on many galaxies – show that the “average history” of star-formation in the Universe is much simpler. This is evident by the observed, smooth change of the cosmic colour as the Universe became older.

Using the cosmic colour the astronomers were also able to determine how the mean age of relatively unobscured stars in the Universe changed with time. Since the Universe was much bluer in the past than it is now, they concluded that the Universe is not producing as many blue (high mass, short-lived) stars now as it was earlier, while at the same time the red (low mass, long-lived) stars from earlier generations of star formation are still present. Blue, massive stars die more quickly than red, low-mass stars, and therefore as the age of a group of stars increases, the blue short-lived stars die and the average colour of the group becomes redder. So did the Universe as a whole.

This behaviour bears some resemblance with the ageing trend in modern Western countries where less babies are born than in the past and people live longer than in the past, with the total effect that the mean age of the population is rising.

The astronomers determined how many stars had already formed when the Universe was only about 3,000 million years old. Young stars (of blue colour) emit more light than older (redder) stars. However, since there was just about as much light in the young Universe as there is today – although the galaxies are now much redder – this implies that there were fewer stars in the early Universe than today. The present study inidcates that there were ten times fewer stars at that early time than there is now.

Finally, the astronomers found that roughly half of the stars in the observed galaxies have been formed after the time when the Universe was about half as old (7,000 million years after the Big Bang) as it is today (14,000 million years).

Although this result was derived from a study of a very small sky field, and therefore may not be completely representative of the Universe as a whole, the present result has been shown to hold in other sky fields.

Original Source: ESO News Release

Is Mars Coming Out of An Ice Age?

Image credit: NASA/JPL

Data gathered by NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey spacecraft show evidence that the Red Planet might be coming out of a recent ice age. Unlike on Earth, an ice age on Mars happens when the poles warm up and water vapour can escape to lower latitudes on the planet. Scientists examined global patterns of landscape shapes and near-surface ice levels and found that a covering of ice and dust covered the surface to latitudes as low as 30 degrees – and it’s currently on the retreat. They believe this ice age happened just 400,000 to 2.1 million years ago.

NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey missions have provided evidence of a relatively recent ice age on Mars. In contrast to Earth’s ice ages, a Martian ice age waxes when the poles warm, and water vapor is transported toward lower latitudes. Martian ice ages wane when the poles cool and lock water into polar icecaps.

The “pacemakers” of ice ages on Mars appear to be much more extreme than the comparable drivers of climate change on Earth. Variations in the planet’s orbit and tilt produce remarkable changes in the distribution of water ice from Polar Regions down to latitudes equivalent to Houston or Egypt. Researchers, using NASA spacecraft data and analogies to Earth’s Antarctic Dry Valleys, report their findings in Thursday’s edition of the journal Nature.

“Of all the solar system planets, Mars has the climate most like that of Earth. Both are sensitive to small changes in orbital parameters,” said planetary scientist Dr. James Head of Brown University, Providence, R.I., lead author of the study. “Now we’re seeing that Mars, like Earth, is in a period between ice ages,” he said.

Discoveries on Mars, since 1999, of relatively recent water- carved gullies, glacier-like flows, regional buried ice and possible snow packs created excitement among scientists who study Earth and other planets. Information from the Mars Global Surveyor and Odyssey missions provided more evidence of an icy recent past.

Head and co-authors from Brown (Drs. John Mustard and Ralph Milliken), Boston University (Dr. David Marchant) and Kharkov National University, Ukraine (Dr. Mikhail Kreslavsky) examined global patterns of landscape shapes and near-surface water ice the orbiters mapped. They concluded a covering of water ice mixed with dust mantled the surface of Mars to latitudes as low as 30 degrees, and is degrading and retreating. By observing the small number of impact craters in those features and by backtracking the known patterns of changes in Mars’ orbit and tilt, they estimated the most recent ice age occurred just 400 thousand to 2.1 million years ago, very recent in geological terms. “These results show Mars is not a dead planet, but it undergoes climate changes that are even more pronounced than on Earth,” Head said.

Marchant, a glacial geologist, who spent 17 field seasons in the Mars-like Antarctic Dry Valleys, said, “These extreme changes on Mars provide perspective for interpreting what we see on Earth. Landforms on Mars that appear to be related to climate changes help us calibrate and understand similar landforms on Earth. Furthermore, the range of microenvironments in the Antarctic Dry Valleys helps us read the Mars record.”

Mustard said, “The extreme climate changes on Mars are providing us with predictions we can test with upcoming Mars missions, such as Europe’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers. Among the climate changes that occurred during these extremes is warming of the poles and partial melting of water at high altitudes. This clearly broadens the environments in which life might occur on Mars.”

According to the researchers, during a Martian ice age, polar warming drives water vapor from polar ice into the atmosphere. The water comes back to ground at lower latitudes as deposits of frost or snow mixed generously with dust. This ice-rich mantle, a few meters thick, smoothes the contours of the land. It locally develops a bumpy texture at human scales, resembling the surface of a basketball, and also seen in some Antarctic icy terrains. When ice at the top of the mantling layer sublimes back into the atmosphere, it leaves behind dust, which forms an insulating layer over remaining ice. On Earth, by contrast, ice ages are periods of polar cooling. The buildup of ice sheets draws water from liquid- water oceans, which Mars lacks. The age of the Earth, like Mars, is 4.6 billion years.

“This exciting new research really shows the mettle of NASA’s ‘follow-the-water’ strategy for studying Mars,” said Dr. Jim Garvin, NASA’s lead scientist for Mars exploration. “We hope to continue pursuing this strategy in January, if the Mars Exploration Rovers land successfully. Later, the 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and 2007 Phoenix near-polar lander will be able to directly follow up on these astounding findings by Professor Head and his team.”

Global Surveyor has been orbiting Mars since 1997, Odyssey since 2001. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages both missions for the NASA Office of Space Science, Washington. Information about NASA’s Mars missions is available on the Internet at:

Original Source: NASA News Release

NASA Tests New Rocket and Parachute Systems

Image credit: NASA

NASA has tested out rocket engines and parachutes that could help astronauts escape from the Orbital Space Plane (OSP) if there’s a problem on the launch pad. The RS-88 engines, which would launch the astronauts away from the OSP, were fired 14 times for a total of 15 seconds of operation. The parachutes were tested at the US Army’s Yuma Proving Grounds and verified that the four main and single drogue parachutes were working as expected. NASA has several Pad Abort Demonstration tests planned for the future, which should give astronauts a better chance of surviving if there’s a problem with the spacecraft.

NASA has tested rocket engines and parachutes that could be instrumental in developing the first spacecraft crew launch escape system in almost 30 years.

The tests pave the way for a series of integrated Pad Abort Demonstration (PAD) test flights to support NASA’s Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program. Launch pad abort tests support development of a system that could pull a crew safely away from danger during liftoff. Knowledge gained from the testing will reduce the future design and development risks of a launch escape system that could be used for the OSP.

“PAD is the first launch pad crew escape system NASA has developed since Apollo,” said Chuck Shaw, PAD Project Manager at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), Houston. “The engine and parachute tests followed successful vehicle wind tunnel tests in September.”

The engines were fired in tests at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Ala., in November and December. A series of 14 hot-fire tests of a 50,000-pound thrust RS-88 rocket engine were conducted, resulting in a total of 55 seconds of successful engine operation. The final test was completed Dec. 11. The engine is being designed and built by the Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power unit of The Boeing Company.

The parachutes were tested at the Army’s Yuma Proving Grounds in Yuma, Ariz., Dec. 9. The tests verify the function, performance and stability of an 80-foot drogue parachute and four 156-foot main parachutes. A 12.5-ton pallet, simulating the size and weight of a crewed vehicle, was dropped from 10,000 feet. The pallet descended to a soft landing under almost two acres of parachutes. A second set of parachute tests will be conducted at Yuma in spring 2004.

Integrated launch abort demonstration tests in 2005 will use four RS-88 engines to separate a test vehicle from a test platform, simulating pulling a crewed vehicle away from an aborted launch. Four 156-foot parachutes will deploy and carry the vehicle to landing. Lockheed Martin Corporation is building the vehicle for the PAD tests. “The separate subsystem tests will allow NASA and Lockheed Martin to begin integration of the test vehicle, its engines and parachutes over the next year,” Shaw said.

Seven integrated PAD test flights are planned during 2005/06. For the initial PAD flight test in mid-2005, a representative crew escape module will be mounted on a pusher propulsion module. Instrumented mannequins will represent a spacecraft crew during the tests.

NASA awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin in November 2002, to design and build a crew escape and survivability system demonstrator and to establish a flexible test bed for use in support of the OSP program.

The OSP program will support U.S. International Space Station requirements for crew transport, rescue and contingency cargo. The OSP will initially launch on an expendable vehicle and provide rescue capability for at least four crewmembers. OSP could launch as early as 2008. Crew transfer for the Station is planned as soon as practical, but no later than 2012. The PAD project is managed at JSC for the OSP Program. The OSP Program is managed at MSFC.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Atlas Launches Navy Communications Satellite

Image credit: Boeing

A Lockheed Martin Atlas III rocket carried a Navy communications satellite onto orbit on Thursday morning. The Atlas III lifted off at 0230 UTC (9:30 pm EST), and it placed the UHF Follow-On (UFO) satellite into an elliptical transfer orbit approximately 32 minutes later. The launch was delayed from Monday because a boltcutter on a liquid oxygen valve needed to be replaced. This was the 68th consecutive successful launch for the Atlas rocket.

A Lockheed Martin-built Atlas III rocket carried a Navy communications satellite into orbit tonight, ending the year on a high note for International Launch Services (ILS), with six successful missions.

The Atlas III launch vehicle left the pad at 9:30 p.m. EST (02:30 Dec. 18 GMT), depositing the satellite into an elliptical transfer orbit about 32 minutes later. The satellite is the 11th in the series called UHF Follow-On (UFO), based on the 601 model built by Boeing Satellite Systems (BSS). Atlas vehicles have launched all 11 UFO satellites, beginning in 1993. The program is managed by the Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR).

Mark Albrecht, president of McLean-Va.,-based ILS, said: ?Through the UFO program, we have developed a long-standing synergy among the three partners ? BSS as the prime contractor, building the satellites and contracting with ILS for the launches, on behalf of the Navy. ILS and the Lockheed Martin Atlas launch team are proud to have played a part in providing vital communications capabilities worldwide to America?s military.?

Albrecht added: ?SPAWAR had the foresight 15 years ago to model its acquisition of the satellites and launches on largely commercial terms. The UHF Follow-On contract is the largest single contract for the commercial Atlas launch program. It was a tremendous boost to establish Atlas in the early days of its commercial launch business.?

A follow-on program could reunite some of the partners. Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) is leading a team that includes Boeing and General Dynamics, competing to develop the follow-on to UFO called Mobile User Objective System.

Tonight?s rocket, the Atlas III, is one of three Atlas models currently being flown. It is a transitional vehicle between the Atlas II series that has been flying since 1991, and the powerful Atlas V, which made its debut successfully in 2002. The Atlas II, III and V families have achieved 100 percent success through 68 consecutive launches. Just two weeks ago, on Dec. 2, an Atlas IIAS rocket successfully launched another military payload. That mission was for the National Reconnaissance Office, and was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

The Atlas III builds upon the pressure-stabilized booster design of the Atlas II, but uses the Russian RD-180 main engine with variable thrust control. The Atlas V also uses the RD-180, with a structurally stabilized Common Core Booster. Up to five solid rocket boosters can be strapped on for additional lift capability. Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) developed the Atlas V series for both commercial missions and the U.S. Air Force?s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. ILS? Atlas rockets and their Centaur upper stages are built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. ? Space & Strategic Missiles Operations, at facilities in Denver, Colo.; Harlingen, Texas; and San Diego, Calif.

ILS is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Russia. ILS, based in McLean, Va., markets and manages the missions for the Atlas rockets and the Russian Proton launch vehicles. ILS offers the broadest range of launch services in the world along with products with the highest reliability in the industry.

Original Source: ILS News Release