One Year to Go for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

With one very busy year remaining before launch, the team preparing NASA’s next mission to Mars has begun integrating and testing the spacecraft’s versatile payload. Possible launch dates from Cape Canaveral, Fla., for NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter begin Aug. 10, 2005. The spacecraft will reach Mars seven months later to study the surface, subsurface and atmosphere with the most powerful instrument suite ever flown to the red planet.

“Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is a quantum leap in our spacecraft and instrument capabilities at Mars,” said James Graf, the mission’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Weighing 2,180 kilograms [4,806 pounds] at launch, the spacecraft will be the largest ever to orbit Mars. The data rate from the orbiter at Mars back to Earth will be three times faster than a high-speed residential telephone line. This rate will enable us to return a tremendous amount of data and dramatically increase our understanding of this mysterious planet.”

JPL’s Dr. Richard Zurek, project scientist for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, said, “This capability is needed to achieve the higher-resolution imaging, spectral mapping, atmospheric profiling and subsurface probing that will allow us to follow up on the exciting discoveries of the current Mars missions.”

Workers at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, have been building the orbiter for more than a year and have reached the final assembly stage. Flight software is 96 percent complete. Assembly of the launch vehicle, an Atlas V, has begun at the same facility where the orbiter is being completed and tested. This will be the first interplanetary mission hitched to an Atlas since 1973. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team now numbers about 175 people at Lockheed Martin and 110 at JPL.

Kevin McNeill, Lockheed Martin’s program manager for the orbiter, said, “Our team has completed integration and testing of a majority of the spacecraft’s subsystems. In the next few months, we’ll integrate and test the science instruments on the orbiter, followed by environmental testing through early next year. We look forward to getting to the Cape next spring and integrating with the Atlas V launch vehicle. We’re all very excited about getting to Mars and returning data for the science teams to evaluate.”

The spacecraft’s six science instruments are in the final stages of assembly, testing and calibration at several locations for delivery in coming weeks. The payload also includes a relay telecommunications package called Electra and two technology demonstrations to support planning of future Mars missions. “Electra was integrated with the spacecraft and tested in July,” Graf said. “The next payload elements to be integrated will be the Mars climate sounder and the compact reconnaissance imaging spectrometer for Mars.” The climate sounder, from JPL, will quantify the martian atmosphere’s vertical variations in water vapor, dust and temperature; the imaging spectrometer, from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory of Laurel, Md., will scan the surface to look for water-related minerals at unprecedented scales, extending discoveries made by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers.

The largest telescopic camera ever sent into orbit around another planet, called the high resolution imaging science experiment, will reveal Mars surface features as small as a kitchen table. Ball Aerospace, Boulder, Colo., is building it for the University of Arizona, Tucson. The orbiter will also carry three other cameras. Two come from Malin Space Sciences, San Diego: the context camera for wide-swath, high-resolution pictures, and the Mars multi-color imager with its fish-eye lens for tracking changes in weather and variations in atmospheric ozone. An optical navigation camera from JPL will use positions of Mars’ two moons to demonstrate precision navigation for future missions.

The Italian Space Agency is providing the orbiter’s shallow radar sounding instrument, designed to probe below the surface to discover evidence of underground layers of ice, rock and, perhaps, melted water.

Another technology demonstration from JPL will allow comparison of a higher-frequency, more-efficient radio band with the band commonly used for interplanetary communications. This may allow future missions to return more data with the same expended power.

NASA?s chief scientist for Mars, Dr. Jim Garvin, added, “We build our science strategy for Mars around the next-generation reconnaissance this spacecraft is to provide, with its revolutionary remote sensing payload, and we are proud of the impressive progress to date by our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will tell us where we must send our next wave of robotic explorers, including the Mars Science Laboratory, as well as paving the way for human exploration.”

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission is managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems is the prime contractor for the project.

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

Cargo Ship Blasts Off

An unpiloted Russian cargo ship blasted off this morning from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a three-day journey to deliver almost three tons of food, fuel, oxygen, water and supplies to the residents of the International Space Station.

The ISS Progress 15 craft lifted off on time from the Central Asian launch site at 12:03 a.m. CDT (503 GMT), and less than 10 minutes later settled into orbit. Moments after that, automatic commands deployed its solar arrays and navigational antennas.

As the Progress launched, Expedition 9 Commander Gennady Padalka and Flight Engineer and NASA Science Officer Mike Fincke were asleep. The Station was flying just to the southwest of Baikonur at an altitude of 230 statute miles at the time of launch.

Two engine firings were scheduled overnight to raise and refine the Progress? orbit and its path to the ISS for an automated docking Saturday morning at 12:02 a.m. CDT (502 GMT) at the aft port of the Zvezda Service Module. The Progress is loaded with 1521 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen and air to replenish the Station?s atmosphere, 926 pounds of water and more than 3000 pounds of spare parts, life support system components and experiment hardware.

Among the spare parts launched today to the Station are new pumps for the U.S. spacesuits onboard that experienced cooling problems in early June while being prepared for a spacewalk to repair a failed power controller. The suits are undergoing troubleshooting in the hope they can be placed back into service in the near future. The repair spacewalk was eventually conducted in Russian Orlan spacesuits on June 30.

Also on the Progress are clothing articles for the next residents that will occupy the Station. Expedition 10 Commander and NASA Science Officer Leroy Chiao and Flight Engineer Salizhan Sharipov are scheduled to launch Oct. 9 on the Soyuz TMA-5 vehicle from Baikonur to begin a six-month stay on the complex, replacing Padalka and Fincke.

Information on the crew’s activities aboard the Space Station, future launch dates, as well as Station sighting opportunities from anywhere on the Earth, is available on the Internet at:

Details on Station science operations can be found on an Internet site administered by the Payload Operations Center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., at:

The next ISS status report will be issued on Friday, August 13, or earlier, if events warrant.

Original Source: NASA Status Report

Perspective View of Olympus Mons

This perspective view, taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft, shows the complex caldera of Olympus Mons on Mars, the highest volcano in our Solar System.

Olympus Mons has an average elevation of 22 kilometres and the caldera, or summit crater, has a depth of about 3 kilometres. The data was retrieved during orbit 143 of Mars Express on 24 February 2004. The view is looking north.

The curved striations on the left and foreground, in the southern part of the caldera, are tectonic faults. After lava production has ceased the caldera collapsed over the emptied magma chamber. Through the collapse the surface suffers from extension and so extensional fractures are formed.

The level plain inside the crater on which these fractures can be observed represents the oldest caldera collapse. Later lava production caused new caldera collapses at different locations (the other circular depressions). They have partly destroyed the circular fracture pattern of the oldest one.

This perspective view of the caldera was calculated from the digital elevation model derived from the stereo channels and combined with the nadir and colour channels of the HRSC.

Original Source: ESA News Release

Hubble Might Be Saved

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has announced that he will be asking the US Congress to approve up to $1.6 billion to send a robotic mission up to the Hubble Space Telescope to make repairs and keep it operational for many more years. He said that he was “actually astonished” at the progress that NASA engineers have been making with a robotic solution. NASA still has no plans to send a human mission to the telescope, but they could know within six months if the budget for a robotic mission gets approved.

Dying Star Leaves a Ring Behind

A new image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows the shimmering embers of a dying star, and in their midst a mysterious doughnut-shaped ring.

“Spitzer’s infrared vision has revealed what could not be seen before – a massive ring of material that was expelled from the dying star,” said Dr. Joseph Hora, a Spitzer scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass. “The composition of the ring and how it formed are mysteries we hope to address with further Spitzer studies.”

The new picture is available online at

The dying star is part of a “planetary nebula” called NGC 246. When a star like our own Sun begins to run out of fuel, its core shrinks and heats up, boiling off the star’s outer layers. Leftover material shoots outward, expanding in shells around the star. This ejected material is then bombarded with ultraviolet light from the central star’s fiery surface, producing huge, glowing clouds – planetary nebulas – that look like giant jellyfish in space.

These cosmic beauties last a relatively brief time, about a few thousand years, in the approximately 10-billion-year lifetime of a star. The name “planetary nebula” came from early astronomers who thought the rounded clouds looked like planets.

NGC 246 is located 1,800 light-years away in the Cetus constellation of our galaxy. Previous observations of this object by visible-light telescopes showed a glistening orb of gas and dust surrounding a central, compact star.

By cutting through the envelope of dust with its infrared eyes, Spitzer provides a more transparent view through and behind the nebula. “What we have seen with Spitzer is totally unexpected,” said Hora. “Although previous observations showed the nebula had a patchy appearance, Spitzer has revealed a ring component of this dying star, possibly consisting of hydrogen molecules.”

In the new false-color picture, the ring appears clumpy and red and off-center from the central star, while fluorescent, or ionized, gases are green. The central star is the left white spot in the middle of the cloud.

Ultimately, these data will help astronomers better understand how planetary nebulas take shape, and how they nourish new generations of stars. A scientific paper on this and other planetary nebulas observed by Spitzer will be published on Sept. 1 in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement, along with 75 other papers reporting Spitzer early mission results.

Launched August 25, 2003, the Spitzer Space Telescope is the fourth of NASA’s Great Observatories, a program that also includes the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Spitzer is also part of NASA’s Origins Program, which seeks to answer the questions: Where did we come from? Are we alone?

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. JPL is a division of Caltech. Spitzer’s infrared array camera, which took the new picture of NGC 246, was built by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The camera’s development was led by Dr. Giovanni Fazio of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Additional information about the Spitzer Space Telescope is available at

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

Armadillo Aerospace Rocket Destroyed

Saturday was a perfect day for flying, so we went out to the 100 acres for a boosted hop. We had high expectations for success, since the vehicle had been operating perfectly on all tests so far.

After we loaded up the propellant and pressurized the vehicle, we ran into a problem. When I opened it up to 20% throttle for the warmup it looked like it cleared up fine, but the telemetry was only reading 100C, as if the hot pack hadn?t started heating. We were a long way from the vehicle, so we couldn?t really tell what was going on. I gave it a bunch of slugs of propellant until it finally started going up in temperature properly, but we had blown a lot of propellant out on the ground. Too much.

It finally reached operating temperature and we launched. We had only been operating this engine at hover thrust levels, so we had been a little concerned that it might be rough at full throttle. It was. It flew fine through the roughness, but when it started to throttle down after the two second boost to a 0.5 G positive acceleration level for the stabilization phase, the rough pulses kept passing both above and below the desired acceleration, keeping the engine from throttling down at full speed, resulting in it going a lot higher than intended (just under 600 feet high). It did finally get out of the rough stability zone into clear stabilization, but a couple seconds later, everything got quiet. It ran out of propellant.

It had not hit apogee yet, so the unstable vehicle immediately started rotating, hitting about 50 degrees / second. If the vehicle had been past apogee when it ran out, it probably would have just dropped feet first.

We had telemetry all the way to the time of impact, which matched the video perfectly, landing eight meters from the launch point. The vehicle hit the ground basically sideways, a little tail first. The bottom manway flange broke off the tank, and the 450 pound tank with 180 psi pressure still in it got punted about 200 yards away by the gas release. $35,000 of rocket is now a whole lot of primo Armadillo Aerospace Droppings. There are a few pipe fittings that survived, but that?s about it. Amazingly, even though the on-board camera was destroyed, the tape did survive with only some scuffed sections. It?s a good thing Doom 3 is selling very well?

From analyzing the telemetry (integrating the chamber pressure during the flight), it looks like it wasted two thirds of the propellant on the warmup. If it had lifted off with a normal warmup, it would have landed ok even with the rough throttling, but we would have been in violation of the 15 second burn time limit by the time it landed. There was twice as much propellant loaded as this flight should have required, which I thought was enough to cover any off-nominal conditions, but we obviously should have scrubbed when the warmup didn?t catch after the second or third try. We are going to look into getting a continuous capacitive level sensor next time so we can have a firm no-go line for liftoff. If anyone knows of a peroxide compatible (316 SS / Teflon / viton / eetc) capacitive sensor that runs off of 12v or 5v DC and can handle 300 psi (we may be willing to run past rated pressure if nexessary), let me know. Ideally we would want a 5V or 10V analog out, but we could live with a current sensor, or (with some begrudging) a serial port. We would like to mount it on the bottom of the tank instead of the conventional top location, but we don?t think that will be a problem.

The failure did give us some demonstration data that we always sort of wanted to get (but not that bad). The vehicle is absolutely, positively, NOT going to continue flying nose first when it loses active control. This should be blatantly obvious from the CG, but we had a WSMR engineer pushing us towards a NASA consultant to prove it. When it fails in the air, it just drops like a rock, landing very near the launch site. Rupturing a fiberglass tank doesn?t produce shrapnel, but it does drop kick the tank pretty good. This looked pretty close to an optimal 45 degree launch angle for the tank, so we have a pretty good idea what our safe distances should be.

We probably would have been able to save the vehicle if we had a rocket drawn parachute on board, but we are trying to have a pyro-free vehicle. A pneumatic drogue cannon might have been able to deploy a chute fast enough, but it would be a lot more debatable.

We cut the engine open with the plasma cutter to do a post-mortem, and found what had been causing the engine issues. The combination of the bottom catalyst retaining plate bowing down because it was only welded on the bottom and some catalyst escaping both out the bottom and some out the top (the top screen was burned through in a couple places) left the bottom catalyst not even completely covering the diameter of the engine. When we had the nozzle and cold pack cut off and the engine on its side, you could see right through the hot pack at the top. This explains the apparently clear exhaust at the start while the thermocouple was still reading only 100C, because the thermocouple was fairly short (we used to use a longer one, but the bowing of the retaining plate forced us to use a shorter one so we could still insert it) so it was in a stream around the edges that bypassed most or all of the hot pack catalyst (driving down the highway probably also settled the catalyst on the opposite side from the sensors), while much of the main flow was still being burned. The loosening catalyst is also almost certainly why this engine ?got rough? after we had been using it for a while.

The support plate bowing can be fixed by either making a full depth angle on the sides of the plate so the weld gets full side coverage, or actually weld the plate between two chamber sections, instead of inside a single chamber section. We are making new plates that are made with 1300 quarter inch holes instead of large water jet cut squares that are bridged by screens. This will let us completely avoid the screens altogether, and we are also going to tie the top and bottom plates around the hot pack together by putting quarter inch bolts through some of the quarter inch holes, and welding them together as a unit with the catalyst in between. This should fix the engine behavior.

Everything else operated perfectly, so we still feel good about the general configuration, but we have a number of improvements for robustness and operability that we will be making in the next vehicle we put together. A couple of the necessary items are fairly long lead times, so we are probably grounded for five weeks.

Original Source: Armadillo Aerospace Status Report

Mars Express Relays Photos from Rovers

ESA?s Mars Express has relayed pictures from one of NASA’s Mars rovers for the first time, as part of a set of interplanetary networking demonstrations. The demonstrations pave the way for future Mars missions to draw on joint interplanetary networking capabilities. ESA and NASA planned these demonstrations as part of continuing efforts to co-operate in space exploration.

On 4 August at 14:24 CEST, as Mars Express flew over one of NASA?s Mars exploration rovers, Opportunity, it successfully received data previously collected and stored by the rover. The data, including 15 science images from the rover’s nine cameras, were then downlinked to ESA?s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt (Germany) and immediately relayed to the Mars Exploration Rovers team based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, USA.

NASA orbiters Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor have so far relayed most of the data produced by the rovers since they landed in January. Communication compatibility between Mars Express and the rovers had already been demonstrated in February, although at a low rate that did not convey much data. The 4 August session, at a transmit rate of 42.6 megabits in about six minutes, set a new mark for international networking around another planet.

The success of this demonstration is the result of years of groundwork and was made possible because both Mars Express and the Mars rovers use the same communication protocol. This protocol, called Proximity-1, was developed by the international Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems, an international partnership for standardising techniques for handling space data.

Mars Express was 1400 kilometres above the Martian surface during the 4 August session with Opportunity, with the goal of a reliable transfer of lots of data. Engineers for both agencies plan to repeat this display of international cooperation today, 10 August, with another set of Opportunity images.

?We’re delighted how well this has been working, and thankful to have Mars Express in orbit,? said Richard Horttor of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, project manager for NASA’s role in Mars Express. JPL engineer Gary Noreen of the Mars Network Office said: ?the capabilities that our international teamwork is advancing this month could be important in future exploration of Mars.?

In addition, Mars Express is verifying two other operating modes with Opportunity and the twin rover, Spirit, from a greater distance. On 3 and 6 August, when Mars Express listened to Spirit, it was about 6000 kilometres above the surface. At this range it successfully tracked a beacon from Spirit, demonstrating a capability that can be used to locate another craft during critical events, such as the descent to a planet?s surface, or for orbital rendez-vous manoeuvres.

?Establishing a reliable communication network around Mars or other planets is crucial for future exploration missions, as it will allow improved coverage and also an increase in the amount of data that can be brought back to Earth,? said Con McCarthy, from ESA?s Mars Express project, ?the tracking mode will enable ESA and NASA to pinpoint a spacecraft?s position more accurately during critical mission phases.?

The final session of the series, scheduled for 13 August with Opportunity, will demonstrate a mode for gaining navigational information from the ?Doppler shift? in the radio signal.

Original Source: ESA News Release

Cassini’s View of Rhea

This view of Saturn?s icy moon Rhea shows hints of its heavily cratered surface, including a bright feature near the terminator. Cassini was, at the time, speeding away from the Saturn system on its initial long, looping orbit.

The image was taken in visible light with the narrow angle camera on July 15, 2004, from a distance of about 5.1 million kilometers (3.2 million miles) from Rhea and at a Sun-Rhea-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 90 degrees. The image scale is 31 kilometers (19 miles) per pixel. The image has been magnified by a factor of two to aid visibility.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit and the Cassini imaging team home page,

Original Source: CICLOPS News Release

Japanese Solar Sail Launched

ISAS succeeded in deploying a big thin film for solar sail in space for the first time in the world.
ISAS launched a small rocket S-310-34 from Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima, Japan, at 15:15, August 9, 2004 (Japan Standard Time). The launch was the culmination of a historic new technology, the world-first successful full-fledged deployment of big films for solar sail.

A solar sail is a spacecraft without a rocket engine. It is pushed along directly by light particles from the Sun, reflecting off its giant sails. Because it carries no fuel and keeps accelerating over almost unlimited distances, it is the only technology now in existence that can one day take us to the stars.

Although both scientists and science-fiction authors have long foreseen it, no solar sail has ever been launched until now. It is because superlight material for thin film which could bear extremely critical environment in space. Now due to the development of material and production technology, we can utilize promising film materials for solar sail, and the experimental deployment trials toward realization of solar sail have been initiated in some countries.

The S-310 rocket which was launched from Uchinoura Space Center at 15:15 of August 9, 2004, carried two kinds of deploying schemes of films with 7.5 micrometers thickness. A clover type deployment was started at 100 seconds after liftoff at 122 km altitude, and a fan type deployment was started at 169 km altitude at 230 seconds after liftoff, following the jettison of clover type system. Both experiments of two types deployment were successful, and the rocket splashed on the sea at about 400 seconds after liftoff.

Original Source: JAXA News Release

Hubble Instrument Fails

One of four science instruments aboard NASA’s Hubble’s Space Telescope suspended operations earlier this week, and engineers are now looking into possible recovery options.

The instrument, called the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), was installed during the second Hubble servicing mission in 1997 and was designed to operate for five years. It has either met or exceeded all its scientific requirements.

Hubble’s other instruments, the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS), the Advanced Camera for Surveys, and the Wide Field/Planetary Camera 2 are all operating normally.

The STIS instrument, which went into a suspended mode Tuesday, was not slated for replacement or upgrade as part of any future servicing mission.

NASA has convened an Anomaly Review Board to investigate the cause of the STIS problem and an investigation is underway to determine if the instrument is recoverable.

Preliminary findings indicate a problem with the +5V DC-DC power converter on Side 2, which supplies power to the mechanism’s electronics. STIS suffered a similar electrical malfunction in 2001 that rendered Side 1 inoperable.

A final decision on how to proceed is expected in the coming weeks as analysis of the problem progresses.

In the current observing cycle, STIS accounts for about 30 percent of all Hubble scientific observation programs. A “standby” list of peer reviewed and approved observing programs for the other science instruments on Hubble can be used to fill the observing time now available.

The high sensitivity and spatial resolution of STIS enabled astronomers to search for massive black holes and study star formation, planets, nebulae, galaxies, and other objects in fine detail.

STIS was developed jointly with Ball Aerospace under the direction of principal investigator Dr. Bruce E. Woodgate of the Laboratory for Astronomy and Solar Physics at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Among the major scientific achievements made by scientists using STIS were:

? Independent confirmation of the age of the universe by finding the coolest and hence oldest white dwarf stars that exist in our galaxy
? Conducted an efficient census of galaxies to catalog supermassive black holes. The fraction of galaxies that prove to contain a central massive black hole has proven to be surprisingly large

– Made the first-ever measurements of the chemical composition of the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet
– Saw the magnetic “footprints” of the Jovian satellites in Jupiter aurora, and made clear images of Saturn’s aurora
– Studied the dynamics of circumstellar disks, the region around young stars where planets may form
– Found the first evidence of the high-speed collision of gas in the recent supernova remnant SN1987A

Additional information about STIS is available on the Internet at:

Original Source: NASA News Release