NASA Scientists Calculate Space Highway

Image credit: NASA

NASA Astronomer Martin Lo has worked out what he believes is a series of low energy flight paths that spacecraft can take to minimize they fuel they need to move around our solar system. Each planet and moon have five points near them where gravity balances out, called Lagrange points – by networking them together, Lo has worked out paths which will use very little fuel to travel from planet to planet. The first spacecraft to take advantage his work will be NASA’s Genesis mission, which will collect solar particles and then return them back to Earth.

A “freeway” through the solar system resembling a vast array of virtual winding tunnels and conduits around the Sun and planets, as envisioned by an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., can slash the amount of fuel needed for future space missions.

Called the Interplanetary Superhighway, the system was conceived by Martin Lo, whose software was used to help design the flight path for NASA’s Genesis mission, which is currently using this “freeway in space” on its mission to collect solar wind particles for return to Earth.

Most missions are designed to take advantage of the way gravity pulls on a spacecraft when it swings by a body such as a planet or moon. Lo’s concept takes advantage of another factor, the Sun’s pull on the planets or a planet’s pull on its nearby moons. Forces from many directions nearly cancel each other out, leaving paths through the gravity fields in which spacecraft can travel.

Each planet and moon has five locations in space called Lagrange points, where one body’s gravity balances another’s. Spacecraft can orbit there while burning very little fuel. To find the Interplanetary Superhighway, Lo mapped some possible flight paths among the Lagrange points, varying the distance the spacecraft would go and how fast or slow it would travel. Like threads twisted together to form a rope, the possible flight paths formed tubes in space. Lo plans to map out these tubes for the whole solar system.

Lo’s research is based on theoretical work begun in the late nineteenth century by the French mathematician Henri Poincar?. In 1978, NASA’s International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 was the first mission to use low energy orbits around a Lagrange point. Later, using low energy paths between Earth and the Moon, controllers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., sent the spacecraft to the first encounter with a comet, Comet Giacobini-Zinner, in 1985.

In 1991, another method of analyzing low energy orbits was used by engineers from JPL and the Japanese Space Agency to enable the Japanese Hiten mission to reach the Moon. Inspired by this pioneering work and research conducted by scientists at the University of Barcelona, Lo conceived the theory of the Interplanetary Superhighway.

Lo and his colleagues have turned the underlying mathematics of the Interplanetary Superhighway into a tool for mission design called “LTool,” using models and algorithms developed at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind. The new LTool was used by JPL engineers to redesign the flight path for the Genesis mission to adapt to a change in launch dates. Genesis launched in August 2001.

The flight path was designed for the spacecraft to leave Earth and travel to orbit the Lagrange point. After five loops around this Lagrange point, the spacecraft will fall out of orbit without any maneuvers and then pass by Earth to a Lagrange point on the opposite side of the planet. Finally, it will return to Earth’s upper atmosphere to drop off its samples of solar wind in the Utah desert.

“Genesis wouldn’t need to use any fuel at all in a perfect world,” Lo said. “But since we can’t control the many variables that occur throughout the mission, we have to make some corrections as Genesis completes its loops around a Lagrange point of Earth. The savings on the fuel translates into a better and cheaper mission.”

Lo added, “This concept does not guarantee easy access to every part of the solar system. However, I can envision a place where we might construct and service science platforms around one of the Moon’s Lagrange points. Since Lagrange points are landmarks for the Interplanetary Superhighway, we might be able to shunt spacecraft to and from such platforms.” A team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston, working with the NASA Exploration Team, proposes to someday use the Interplanetary Superhighway for future human space missions.

“Lo’s work has led to breakthroughs in simplifying mission concepts for human and robotic exploration beyond low-Earth orbit,” said Doug Cooke, manager of Johnson’s Advanced Development Office. “These simplifications result in fewer space vehicles needed for a broad range of mission options.”

The work on the Interplanetary Superhighway for space mission design was nominated for a Discover Innovation Award by Discover magazine editors and an outside panel of experts.

JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. For more information on the Genesis mission, visit the Internet at:

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

Lance Bass is About to Get His Day in Space

Singer Lance Bass from the band ‘N Sync has moved significantly closer to getting a trip to visit the International Space Station. Bass has been approved for flight by Russian doctors, so if he gets his training completed, he could launch to the station on board a Soyuz spacecraft sometime in the autumn. It’s believed that Bass has already secured the estimated $20 million cost from several sponsors, including RadioShack Corporation.

Russians Spacecraft Lands… Somewhere

After a successful launch on Friday, Russian space officials seem to have misplaced their Demonstrator-2 inflatable spacecraft. The spacecraft blasted from a Russian submarine into space on Friday atop a converted Volna SS-N-18 intercontinental ballistic missile. It then inflated to form a sail and returned to Earth somewhere near the Kamchatka Peninsula. Helicopters are still combining the area searching for remnants of the vehicle.

Russians Launch Prototype Inflatable Spacecraft

A Russian-European team tested a new inflatable spacecraft over the weekend with the launch of their “Demonstrator-2” on board a converted Volna SS-N-18 intercontinental ballistic missile. The prototype was less than a metre across when packed into the rocket, but it inflated into a sail almost 4 metres across when it reached orbit. It then drifted back to Earth somewhere near the Kamchatka Peninsula. Future uses for this technology could include a method for bailing out of the space station, or to transfer cargo from space back to Earth.

ESA Agrees to Begin Venus Express

Image credit: ESA

The members of the European Space Agency agreed to start work on Venus Express, which will reuse the Mars Express spacecraft design. It will also reuse several instruments from both Mars Express and Rosetta to peer through our twin planet Venus’ thick clouds. One country, Italy, still has until October 2002 to confirm its participation in the payload. If all goes well, the spacecraft will launch in 2005.

On 11 July 2002, Europe took a step closer to Venus. The ESA Science Programme Committee agreed unanimously to start work on Venus Express. Venus Express will reuse the Mars Express spacecraft design and needs to be ready for launch in 2005.

The mission’s fate is not yet final because one nation, Italy, has still to confirm its participation in the payload. Italy has been given until 15 October 2002 to provide its final commitment.

The idea behind Venus Express began in 2001 when ESA issued a call for ideas to reuse the Mars Express spacecraft design for a quick, low-cost mission. Among the constraints were that the new mission had to use the industrial teams already in place for Mars Express and that meant double-quick development. Despite the constraints, a large number of good ideas came in from scientists around Europe. Venus Express was eventually selected because of its great scientific value. Venus is not well explored and an excellent group of instruments were easily available in Europe. These instruments had been developed as back-ups for either ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft or ESA’s comet-chaser mission, Rosetta. The instrument suite will be able to look at the planetary environment from surface to outermost atmosphere.

In November 2001, ministers from ESA’s Member States restricted the ESA Science Directorate’s budget thereby reducing the chance of survival of the Venus Express proposal.

Nevertheless, against the odds, Venus Express appeared among the missions proposed in the restructured programme presented to the Science Programme Committee in May 2002. However, at the last moment, the Director of Science withdrew it from consideration because he felt that the Member States and the scientists were not fully able to commit to providing funds and instruments within the tight schedule required.

The Director of Science, Prof. David Southwood remembers, “I did not like withdrawing it from our plans but it was better not to start at all than to have to stop badly later.”

In June 2002, the ESA Council heard Southwood’s report. The Council Chairman, Alain Bensoussan of France, strongly urged a re-evaluation of the viability of the Venus Express. On 11 July 2002, the SPC decided the prospects were now sound enough to commence work to meet a launch date in November 2005 that is fixed by the motion of the heavens.

“The Venus Express mission has now taken a big step towards realisation. However, there is much work to do and we had to demand everyone has to be ready if it is to fly in time,” Southwood says, adding, “I’m now glad to see that the Cosmic Vision programme moves closer to its original shape. If we can get Venus Express confirmed in the autumn, ESA will be the only space agency in the world with current plans to visit each planet in the inner Solar System.”

Original Source: ESA News Release

NASA Grounds Shuttle Fleet

NASA controllers grounded the shuttle fleet for at least two more months on Friday after they discovered small fuel line cracks – so far they’ve uncovered 11 in the four shuttles. All the cracks are very small, only a few millimetres in length, but NASA is worried that a piece of metal could chip off the fuel line and fall into a main engine during liftoff. This could have disastrous results. Two shuttle flights are currently on hold until the problem can be fixed.

Hubble Spots a Star’s Finale

Image credit: Hubble

The newest image release from the Hubble Space Telescope is of the shredded remnants of Cassiopeia A, a star that went supernova more than 10,000 years ago – the youngest known supernova in our galaxy. Debris has formed into thousands of cooling knots of gas and dust, and will eventually supply new star systems with heavier elements such as oxygen and sulphur.

Glowing gaseous streamers of red, white, and blue ? as well as green and pink ? illuminate the heavens like Fourth of July fireworks. The colorful streamers that float across the sky in this photo taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope were created by one of the biggest firecrackers seen to go off in our galaxy in recorded history, the titanic supernova explosion of a massive star. The light from the exploding star reached Earth 320 years ago, nearly a century before our United States celebrated its birth with a bang.

The dead star’s shredded remains are called Cassiopeia A, or “Cas A” for short. Cas A is the youngest known supernova remnant in our Milky Way Galaxy and resides 10,000 light-years away in the constellation Cassiopeia, so the star actually blew up 10,000 years before the light reached Earth in the late 1600s.

This stunning Hubble image of Cas A is allowing astronomers to study the supernova’s remains with great clarity, showing for the first time that the debris is arranged into thousands of small, cooling knots of gas. This material eventually will be recycled into building new generations of stars and planets. Our own Sun and planets are constructed from the debris of supernovae that exploded billions of years ago.

This photo shows the upper rim of the supernova remnant’s expanding shell. Near the top of the image are dozens of tiny clumps of matter. Each small clump, originally just a small fragment of the star, is tens of times larger than the diameter of our solar system.

The colors highlight parts of the debris where chemical elements are glowing. The dark blue fragments, for example, are richest in oxygen; the red material is rich in sulfur.

The star that created this colorful show was a big one, about 15 to 25 times more massive than our Sun. Massive stars like the one that created Cas A have short lives. They use up their supply of nuclear fuel in tens of millions of years, 1,000 times faster than our Sun. With their fuel exhausted, heavy stars begin a complex chain of events that lead to the final dramatic explosion. Their cores rapidly collapse, releasing an enormous amount of gravitational energy. This sudden burst of energy reverses the collapse and tosses most of the star’s mass into space. The ejected material can travel as fast as 45 million miles per hour (72 million kilometers per hour).

The images were taken with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 in January 2000 and January 2002.

Original Source: Hubble News Release

Station Crew Unload Progress Cargo

Image credit: NASA

The crew of the International Space Station spent a busy day on Friday unloading the cargo delivered by the latest Progress 8 supply ship. The automated ship was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on board a Soyuz rocket on June 26, and it docked three days later.

Crewmembers aboard the International Space Station today continued to unload the Progress 8 unpiloted Russian cargo carrier docked to the aft port of the station?s Zvezda Service Module. Meanwhile, activities in the U.S. laboratory Destiny focused on initial setup of the SUBSA (Solidification Using a Baffle in Sealed Ampoules) experiment in the lab?s new Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG).

Expedition 5 Commander Valery Korzun, and Flight Engineers Peggy Whitson and Sergei Treschev had a relatively light week of work; with Sunday and Monday largely rest days after last Saturday?s docking of the Progress 8. July 4 was essentially a holiday in space for the crewmembers, thought they did some work off a generic task list.

Whitson spent much of this morning installing the SUBSA experiment in the glovebox, which has not yet been commissioned for operations. The SUBSA installation will be completed once the MSG is activated.

Earlier this week, crewmembers began unloading the Progress and cataloguing its contents into the computerized, barcode Inventory Management System of the space station. Whitson brought the Medium-rate Communications Outage Recorder (MCOR) in Destiny back to life on Wednesday, after a three-week outage. She checked its fans and replaced a computer docking station. The MCOR records payload data during periods when the station is out of communication with the ground and transmits the data once communications are restored. The outage had no impact on science operations.

Next Wednesday, Korzun and Whitson will be at the controls of the Canadarm2 robotic arm in Destiny, commanding the Canadian-built arm to ?walk off? its grapple fixture on the laboratory so that its available latching end effector can grapple a power and data fixture on the recently installed Mobile Base System, the platform mounted on the station?s rail car on the S0 (S-Zero) truss. One end of the arm is already affixed to the Mobile Base System, but the ?walk off? of the other end of the arm to the mobile platform will mark another first for station robotic operations. The rail car will eventually move down the truss to be placed in position for the installation of the S1 Truss on the starboard side of the ISS, planned for later this year.

U.S. and Russian timeliners have converged on Aug. 16 and 23 as the two dates for spacewalks planned by Korzun and Whitson, then Korzun and Treschev, to mount experiments on the outside of the station and to install micrometeoroid debris shields on Zvezda. Those are the only two spacewalks planned for the Expedition 5 crew.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Ariane 5 Rocket Launches Two Satellites

A powerful Ariane 5 rocket lifted off late Friday from the European Space Agency (ESA) launch center in Kourou, French Guiana. It was carrying two satellites: the STELLAT 5 which will provide Internet and video transmission to Europe, Africa and the Middle East; and the N-STAR C which will support mobile phones in Japan. This is the 12th launch of an Ariane 5.

Russians Propose Human Mars Mission

Russian space officials have announced their intentions to send human explorers to Mars by 2015. Hoping for International support to help fund the $20 billion budget, managers have already planned out the mission basics. They’re estimating that two ships would travel to Mars and deliver three people to the surface for 440 days while three others would remain in orbit. Obviously this is completely preliminary in nature, and officials from NASA or the ESA have yet to comment if they would support this Russian initiative.