Awesome Action Animation Depicts Russia’s Bold Robot Retriever to Mars moon Phobos

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In less than 48 hours, Russia’s bold Phobos-Grunt mechanized probe will embark on a historic flight to haul humanities first ever soil samples back from the tiny Martian moon Phobos. Liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome remains on target for November 9 (Nov 8 US 3:16 p.m. EDT).

For an exquisite view of every step of this first-of-its-kind robot retriever, watch this spectacular action packed animation (below) outlining the entire 3 year round trip voyage. The simulation was produced by Roscosmos, Russia’s Federal Space Agency and the famous IKI Space Research Institute. It’s set to cool music – so don’t’ worry, you don’t need to understand Russian.

Another video below shows the arrival and uncrating of the actual Phobos-Grunt spacecraft at Baikonur in October 2011.

The highly detailed animation begins with the blastoff of the Zenit booster rocket and swiftly progresses through Earth orbit departure, Phobos-Grunt Mars orbit insertion, deployment of the piggybacked Yinghuo-1 (YH-1) mini satellite from China, Phobos-Grunt scientific reconnaissance of Phobos and search for a safe landing site, radar guided propulsive landing, robotic arm manipulation and soil sample collection and analysis, sample transfer to the Earth return capsule and departure, plummeting through Earth’s atmosphere and Russian helicopter retrieval of the precious cargo carrier.


Video Caption: Every step of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt soil retrieval mission. Credit: Roscosmos/IKI


Video Caption: On October 21, the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft arrived at the Baikonur Cosmodrome and was uncrated and moved to assembly building 31 for fueling, final preflight processing and encapsulation in the nose cone. Credit: Roscosmos

Labeled Schematic of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 (YH-1) orbiter. Credit: Roskosmos

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt upcoming Nov. 9 launch here:
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 Encapsulated for Voyage to Mars and Phobos
Phobos and Jupiter Conjunction in 3 D and Amazing Animation – Blastoff to Martian Moon near
Russia Fuels Phobos-Grunt and sets Mars Launch for November 9
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

Video Duet – Soyuz Debut Blast off from the Amazon Jungle and Rockin’ Russian Rollout !

Watch the video of today’s debut lift off of a Russian Soyuz rocket from the edge of the Amazon jungle at the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana as it successfully carried the first two Galileo In-Orbit Validation satellites to space after an arduous 7 year struggle to mesh Russian and European technologies and cultures – a magnificent achievement that opens a wide realm of new commercial and science exploration possibilities to exploit space for humankind. Launch photos below and here.

Now have some real fun and enjoy this absolutely cool Rockin’ Russian music video showing a headless Soyuz rollout to the pad, an erection like you’ve never imagined and capping with the Galileo satellites. Guaranteed you’ve never seen struttin’ like this but will totally get the Soyuz experience in 2 minutes – give it a whirl. They never did it like this in Russia.

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“This historic first launch of a genuine European system like Galileo was performed by the legendary Russian launcher that was used for Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, a launcher that will, from now on, lift off from Europe’s Spaceport,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of ESA.

“These two historical events are also symbols of cooperation: cooperation between ESA and Russia, with a strong essential contribution of France; and cooperation between ESA and the European Union, in a joint initiative with the EU”.

First Soyuz lift from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on 21 October 2011. Credits: ESA/CNES/ARIANESPACE - Optique Video du CSG, Service Optique
Soyuz inside the Mobile Launch Gantry after installation of Galileo satellites mounted inside Upper Composite. Credit: Claus Lippert/DLR

Read Ken’s continuing features about Soyuz from South America starting here:
Historic 1st Launch of Legendary Soyuz from South America
Russian Soyuz Poised for 1st Blastoff from Europe’s New South American Spaceport

Read Ken’s features about Russia’s upcoming Phobos-Grunt launch from Baikonur here:
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

Historic 1st Launch of Legendary Soyuz from South America

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Russia’s legendary Soyuz rocket soared skywards today (Oct.21) on its historic 1st ever blastoff from a new European space base in the equatorial jungles of South America. The history making liftoff of the Soyuz ST-B launcher from French Guiana occurred at exactly 6:30:26 a.m. EST (10:30:26 GMT) and lofted the first two operational satellites of Europe’s new Galileo GPS navigation system.

The flawless liftoff of the Soyuz booster from the ELS pad in French Guiana marked the first time that a Soyuz was launched from outside of the six existing pads in Russia and Kazakhstan. The joint Russian-European project was started back in 2004 and culminated with today’s launch of the Soyuz-VSO1 mission.

“This launch represents a lot for Europe: we have placed in orbit the first two satellites of Galileo, a system that will position our continent as a world-class player in the strategic domain of satellite navigation, a domain with huge economic perspectives,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of ESA.

First Soyuz lift blastoff from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on 21 October 2011. Mobile gantry at left. Credits:Thilo Kranz/DLR - Special to Universe Today

Soyuz lineage dates back to the beginning of the Space Age with the launch of Sputnik-1 in 1957 and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. Soyuz had flown 1776 times to date.

First Soyuz lift from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on 21 October 2011. Credits: ESA/CNES/ARIANESPACE - S. Corvaja, 2011

The launcher is based on the existing Soyuz design with a few changes to accommodate European safety standards and the construction of the ELS launch pad was modeled after the existing pads in Baikonur in Kazakhstan and Plesetsk in Russia. One significant difference is the construction of a 45 meter (170 foot) mobile gantry

A leaky valve delayed the flight by one day.

The duo of 700 kg Galileo satellites were mounted side by side on the Fregat upper stage atop the three stage Soyuz-2 rocket. These two Galileo In-orbit Validation (IOV) model satellites are experimental models that will be used to test the GPS technology.

Soyuz lifts off for the first time on 21 October 2011 from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana carrying the first two Galileo In-Orbit Validation satellites. Credits: ESA/CNES/ARIANESPACE - S. Corvaja, 2011

Two additional Galileo IOV satellites will be launched in 2012 as the initial segment of a 30 strong constellation of satellites in total.

The Galileo satelites will provide pinpoint accuracy to within about 1 meter (3 feet) compared to about 3 meters (10 feet) for the GPS system.

The 4 meter diameter payload fairing jettisoned as planned three minutes into the flight and the first of two firings of the Fregat upper stage was successfully completed after burnout of the lower stages. The second Fregat firing was accomplished about 4 hours after launch and injected the Galileo satellites into orbit some 23,000 km (14,000 miles) miles high.

The Fregat upper stage was designed to reignite and fire up to 20 times. It is fueled with nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH).

First Soyuz lift from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on 21 October 2011. Credits: ESA/CNES/ARIANESPACE - S. Corvaja, 2011

By launching from near the equator (5°N), the Soyuz gains about a 50% performance boost from 1.7 tons to nearly 3 tons to geostationary orbit due to the Earth’s faster spin compared to Baikonur (46°N).

Manned Soyuz missions from South America could be possible at some future date if the political and funding go ahead was approved by ESA and Russia. It is technically possible to reach the ISS from the French Guiana pad and would require the installation of additional ground support equipment.

The next Soyuz launch from South America is set for Dec. 16, 2011. 17 contracts have already been signed for future liftoffs at a rate of 2 to 3 per year.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Soyuz from South America starting here:
Russian Soyuz Poised for 1st Blastoff from Europe’s New South American Spaceport

Read Ken’s features about Russia’s upcoming Phobos-Grunt launch from Baikonur here:
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

First Soyuz Launch from South America Delayed

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The first launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket from Europe’s new South American Spaceport in French Guiana has been postponed at least 24 hours due to technical problems. “Following an anomaly detected during fueling of the Soyuz launcher’s third stage, the final countdown has been interrupted,” ESA said in a statement. “Soyuz and its two Galileo IOV satellites, along with the launch facility, have been placed in a safe mode. A new launch date will be announced later today.”

UPDATE: ESA has announced a new launch time for Friday, October 21 at 10:30:26 GMT (6:30 EDT).

The problem was caused by a leak inside a valve. The Galileo system is being launched as a new GPS system, which will provide more than double the coverage and more accurate locations than the current US-provided Global Positioning System.

The launch was originally scheduled for last year, bad weather delayed the construction of the Soyuz launch facility.

Russian Soyuz Poised for 1st Blastoff from Europe’s New South American Spaceport

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A Russian Soyuz-2 rocket sits poised for its first ever blast off in less than 24 hours from a brand new launch pad built in the jungles of French Guiana, South America by the European Space Agency (ESA) .

The payload for the debut liftoff of the Soyuz ST-B booster consists of the first pair of operational Galilieo satellites, critical to Europe’s hopes for building an independent GPS navigation system in orbit.

Soyuz VS01, the first Soyuz flight from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, will lift off on 20 October 2011. The rocket will carry the first two satellites of Europe’s Galileo navigation system into orbit. Credit:ESA - S. Corvaja

The Soyuz VS01 mission is set to soar on Thursday, Oct. 20 at 6:34 a.m. EDT (1034 GMT ) from Europe’s new South American pad, specially built for the Soyuz rocket. The three stage rocket was rolled out 600 meters horizontally to the launch pad and vertically raised to its launch position.

Soyuz VS01 on launch pad. Soyuz VS01vehicle was rolled out horizontally on its erector from the preparation building to the launch zone and then raised into the vertical position. The ‘Upper Composite’, comprising the Fregat upper stage, payload and fairing, was also transferred and added onto the vehicle from above, completing the very first Soyuz on its launch pad at Europe’s Spaceport. Soyuz VS01 will lift off on 20 October 2011. The rocket will carry the first two satellites of Europe’s Galileo navigation system into orbit. Credit: ESA - S. Corvaja

The two Galileo satellites were mated to the Fregat-MT upper stage, enclosed inside their payload fairing and then hoisted atop the Soyuz rocket. They should seperate from the upper stage about 3.5 hous after launch.

Because French Guiana is so close to the equator, the Soyuz gains a significant boost in performance from 1.7 tons to 3 tons due to the Earth’s greater spin.

This marks the first time in history that the renowned Soyuz workhorse will blast off from outside of Kazakhstan or Russia and also the start of orbital construction of Europe’s constellation of 30 Gallileo satellites.

28 more of the navigation satellites, built by the EADS consortium based in Germany, will be lofted starting in 2012 aboard the medium class Soyuz rockets.

French Guiana is already home to Europe’s venerable Ariane rocket family and will soon expand further to include the new Vega rocket for smaller class satellites.

ESA will begin live streaming coverage starting about an hour before the planned launch time of 6:34 a.m. EDT (1034 GMT)

Soyuz VS01 poised for launch on Oct. 20, 2011. Credit: ESA - S. Corvaja

First JWST Instrument Passes Tests

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One of many instruments that will fly aboard the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has just passed critical testing at ESA facilities in the UK. “MIRI”, the Mid-InfraRed Instrument, is being developed by the ESA as a vital part of the JWST mission. Researchers will use MIRI to study exoplanets, distant galaxies, comets and dust-shrouded star forming regions.  In order to work correctly and provide useful data, MIRI needs to consistently operate at temperatures of around 7 kelvin. (-266° C). How do engineers test these components to make sure they work properly in harsh conditions of space?

At the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space in Oxfordshire, engineers performed tests to ensure the entire instrument assembly works as designed.  Inside the test chamber, special “targets” were used to help simulate scientific observations. The simulated observations will scientists develop the software necessary to calibrate MIRI after JWST’s launch. Based on the initial results of testing, the engineers believe MIRI is working properly and will perform all required science functions extremely well.

Peter Jakobsen, ESA JWST Project Scientist, said,  “Future users of JWST and MIRI are looking forward to learning more about the detailed performance of the instrument once the test results are analysed further in the coming months. The experience gained by the MIRI test team throughout this campaign has sown the seeds for a rich scientific harvest from the JWST mission.”

In the same ESA press release,  Gillian Wright, Principal Investigator and lead of the MIRI European Science Team added, “It is inspiring to see MIRI working extremely well at its operating temperature after so many years in development. The test campaign has been a resounding success and the whole MIRI team can be very proud of this magnificent achievement.”

Sean Keen making adjustments to MIRI during environmental testing in RAL Space's thermal vacuum chamber on August 16th. 2011.

This past July, the U.S House of Representatives’ appropriations committee on Commerce, Justice, and Science proposed a budget for fiscal year 2012 that would cancel JWST’s funding. In a testament to the dedication of the teams involved in JWST’s construction, work continues despite the uncertain fate of the JWST mission.

Aside from the MIRI instrument passing testing, over half of JWST’s mirrors have been polished and coated. Several of the mirror segments have passed rigorous testing, and at this time, nearly three-quarters of JWST’s hardware is being built or tested.

A screenshot of a JWST mirror segment in the laser testing facility at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado. Credit: John O'Connor, NASA Tech.

Above is a screenshot of a larger panoramic image from the NASA Tech website, showing one of the JWST mirror segments being tested in a laser testing facility at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado. You can see several panoramic views of the mirror testing at NASA Tech. These are big files, but are well worth the view! Just go to the main page and scroll down for the JWST panoramas.

If you’d like to learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope, visit: http://www.jwst.nasa.gov or: http://webbtelescope.org/webb_telescope

Resources on how you can contact your representative to express support for JWST can be found at: http://savethistelescope.blogspot.com.

You can also read a statement by the American Astronomical Society regarding JWST at: http://aas.org/node/4483 Source: ESA News Release

Worlds Apart: Planet and Moon Align

Here’s a cool animation showing Mars’ little moon Phobos passing in front of distant Jupiter from the viewpoint of ESA’s Mars Express orbiter:

The conjunction event occurred on June 1.

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Only 21 km (13 miles) across at the widest, the irregularly-shaped Phobos may have been created by a large impact on Mars in its distant past, a chunk of the planet’s crust thrown into orbit. Mars Express most recently performed a close flyby of Phobos back on January 9, passing it at a distance of only 100 km (62 miles).

What’s really amazing to think about is the distances between these two worlds – about 529 million km! But those kinds of distances are no hindrance to vision out in space, especially when the farther object is a giant planet like Jupiter.

The images were taken with Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC), which was kept centered on Jupiter during the conjunction. A total of 104 images were taken over a span of 68 seconds to create the animation.

“By knowing the exact moment when Jupiter passed behind Phobos, the observation will help to verify and even improve our knowledge of the orbital position of the martian moon.”

– ESA

Read the news release on the ESA Space Science site here.

All images shown here were processed at the Department of Planetary Sciences and Remote Sensing at the Institute of Geological Sciences of the Freie Universität Berlin. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Ultimate ISS + Shuttle + Earth Photo Op Coming on May 23 from Soyuz and Paolo Nespoli

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER: Get ready for the ultimate photo op in space – set for the International Space Station joined to Space Shuttle Endeavour and topped off by Planet Earth as the backdrop.

And it’s coming up momentarily because of an unexpected and “unique opportunity” that’s also taking place at nearly the last possible moment in the life of the soon to be retired Space Shuttle program.

On Monday, May 23, Italian Astronaut Paolo Nespoli will snap the first ever photos and video of a US Space Shuttle orbiter while it is simultaneously still docked to the International Space Station, NASA officials just announced on Friday, May 19.

Video Caption: This computer generated animation depicts the view the Soyuz crew will see as they depart from the International Space Station (upper left) on May 23, 2011 at 5:32 p.m. EDT. Italian Astronaut Paolo Nespoli will capture an incredible and first ever imagery of the stacked station/shuttle complex with a space shuttle orbiter; the Endeavour. Bottom view shows side view of the Soyuz departing the ISS. Credit: NASA

Nespoli will capture the dramatic and historic imagery – in a newly devised plan – while he is departing the “Shuttle- Station stack” aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and heading for a landing back on Earth with two crewmates barely 4 hours later in Kazakhstan.

“We have a unique opportunity. We are calling this Soyuz undock with imagery,” said Kenneth Todd, chair of NASA’s space station mission management team. “We are not calling this a Soyuz flyaround or flyabout.”

“This is going to be a great opportunity for the spaceflight community.”

After months of high level international negotiations since the STS-133 mission, NASA and Russian space officials from the space shuttle and space station teams have finally agreed on a arrangement for utilizing a crewed Soyuz vehicle to record the first ever photos showing a shuttle while still docked to the massive orbiting outpost in the same field of view.

The chance to do the shuttle- station photo documentation in this way only became possible when the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour was scrubbed on April 29 and the resulting delayed launch of the STS-134 mission on May 16 fortuitously afforded an overlapping time period that coincided with the Soyuz TMA-20 crew departure.

Space Shuttle Endeavour launches from Pad 39 A on May 16, 2011 on the STS-134 mission.
View from the countdown clock at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Endeavour has delivered the $2 Billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station. The AMS will search for dark matter, dark energy and antimatter to determine the origin and evolution of the Universe. Credit: Ken Kremer

The photo opportunity will take place under what’s called a dual docked operations scenario whereby the Soyuz is undocked while a shuttle is still attached to the ISS.

“With 100 percent consensus, we approved this change to the baseline mission to go add this photo documentation task as part of the Soyuz TMA-20 undock,” Todd explained.

In order to accommodate the extra time required to accomplish the photo shoot, the Soyuz TMA-20 capsule will undock from the ISS one orbit earlier than originally scheduled, about 90 minutes, at 5:32 p.m. EDT.

Space Shuttle Atlantis docked to Russian Mir Space Station
on 29 June 1995.
Check out this perspective of what a space shuttle looks like when docked to an Earth orbiting space station. Atlantis is docked to the Mir Space Station on 29 June 1995 during the STS-71 mission. The shuttle has never before been photographed while attached to the Internalional Space Station. The photos of the Shuttle Endeavou and ISS Space Station stack are expected on May 23, 2010. Credit: Roscosmos

Nespoli is departing with ISS Expedition 27 commander and Russian cosmonaut Dimitry Kondratyev and NASA astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman. They will be completing a nearly six month stint in space aboard the ISS.”

“After the Soyuz undocks, they will back out to about 200 meters,” explained Courtney McMillan, STS-134 Station Team 4 Flight Director. “You will see they are a little bit above the velocity vector, above the station, and that is to keep the sun out of the pilot’s eyes.”

“After they get to the station keeping point, ISS will begin to maneuver, turning 130 degrees at 0.2 degrees per second.” The attitude was designed to provide the best perspective of the ISS and Endeavour.

“It will take 15 minutes to bring the whole stack around to get a side view and a really good view of Endeavour. This is an unusual attitude for the station to fly during a mated mission and people have done a lot of work to make sure this is a good thing to be doing. They have scrutinized the issue and are very comfortable with the plan.”

The station move will be done using thrusters on the Russian Segment service module – named Zvezda – and the thrusters on the docked Progress 42P vehicle, an unmanned Russian cargo ship. See diagram below.

Nespoli will have to float into the Soyuz vehicles forward habitation module – from his seat in the central descent module – and then snap the photo and video imagery through the modules windows. He will have a direct line of sight to the stack.

Paolo will have roughly 30 minutes time to collect all the imagery of the combined space complex during the photo survey, starting at about 5:50 p.m. EDT.

Then he will float back out of the habitation module, carefully seal the hatches in between and take his seat in the descent module.

The habitation module burns up in Earth orbit after the modules separate in preparation for the Soyuz’s deorbit and scorching reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Since the Soyuz will be pitched up during the undocking sequence, breathtaking views of Earth in the background of the “Shuttle-
Station stack” are expected.

The goal is to get good archival imagery of the space station stack with the shuttle attached. In addition to the gee whiz factor there are good reasons from an engineering perspective to record this imagery to assess the condition of the orbiting complex, NASA managers said.

“Future generations will look back on their history and look back at what we accomplished between these two very, very large programs – the shuttle and the space station – and realize it was amazing what we accomplished with the technology available at the time.”

“These pictures will be in textbooks to show what we did”, said Todd.

Exactly when the digital photos and video will be available for all to see is still to be determined. NASA and Russian space officials are discussing the details of when and how to distribute the imagery. The Soyuz is not equipped to transmit the imagery in real time.

“We hope to start seeing the photos and videos within a day of landing”, said Todd.

Paolo has snapped many gorgeous shots during his stay in space, including these of an Ariane V launching the European ATV cargo craft from French Guiana.

Go Paolo !

Read my story about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135, here:
Atlantis Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building with Final Space Shuttle Crew for July 8 Blastoff

Read my related stories about the STS-134 mission here:
Endeavour Blasts Off on Her 25th and Final Mission
Endeavour Unveiled for Historic Final Blastoff
Looking to the Heavens with Endeavour; Launch Pad Photo Special
Endeavour Astronauts Arrive at Cape for May 16 Launch
NASA Sets May 16 for Last Launch of Endeavour; Atlantis Slips to July
Endeavour’s Final Launch further delayed another Week or more
On the Cusp of Endeavour’s Final Flight
Brush Fires Erupt at Kennedy Space Center during Endeavour’s Last Countdown
Commander Mark Kelly and STS-134 Crew Arrive at Kennedy for Endeavour’s Final Flight
President Obama to Attend Endeavour’s Last Launch on April 29
Shuttle Endeavour Photo Special: On Top of Pad 39A for Final Flight
Endeavour Mated to Rockets for Last Flight Photo Album
Endeavour Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building for Final Flight

Diagram of Russian Zvezda Service Module

Commander Mark Kelly and STS-134 Crew Arrive at Kennedy for Endeavour’s Final Flight

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – The six man crew for Shuttle Endeavour’s final flight to space arrived today (April 26) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The crew flew in to the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) on a quartet of T-38 jets from their training base in Houston.

Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly introduced his crew to a large crowd of gathered reporters, photographers and NASA officials including Launch Director Mike Leinbach, KSC Director Bob Cabana and Kelly’s twin brother Scott who recently returned from a six month stint aboard the International Space Station.

Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly addresses the media at the shuttle landing strip after crew arrival on April 26. From left: Mission Specialists Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel, Commander Mark Kelly, Pilot Greg H. Johnson. T-38 jet in the background. Credit: Ken Kremer

Speaking on behalf of the entire crew he said, “We’re really happy to be here today,” said Kelly. “We got a chance to take look at the orbiter as we first flew over the field and then the over pad. It’s great to see Endeavour all ready to go again.”

Kelly was exuberant in saying that his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was well enough to attend the STS-134 launch set for Friday, at 3:47 p.m. EDT.

The shuttle launch countdown officially commenced at 2 PM today. The weather outlook is 80% GO, with a 20% chance of weather violations prohibiting launch according to Shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters.

STS-134 crew arrives at KSC aboard T-38 jets. Credit : Alan Walters, awaltersphoto.com

STS-134 is the 25th and final launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour.

The primary payload aboard Endeavour is the $2 Billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) ) which the crew will attach to the International Space Station. The AMS will collect cosmic rays, search for dark energy, dark matter and anti matter and seeks to determine the origin of the Universe.

Photos from the Universe Today team of Alan Walters, Ken Kremer and Michael Deep. Check back later for more photos

STS 134 crew pose for photographers at Shuttle Landing Facility on April 26. Launch is set for April 29. Mission Specialists Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel, Commander Mark Kelly, Pilot Greg H. Johnson, Mission Specialist Mike Fincke and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori. Credit: Ken Kremer
STS-134 commander Mark Kelly strides across the runway of the Shuttle Landing Facility. Credit: Michael Deep, for Universe Today.
Astronauts Mark Kelly and Mike Fincke land in their T-38 at Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Michael Deep, for Universe Today.

A Varying Venusian Vortex

Animation of Venus' southern polar vortex made from VIRTIS thermal infrared images; white is cooler clouds at higher altitudes.

Our neighboring planet Venus really is a world of extremes; searing surface temperatures, crushing air pressure, sulfuric acid clouds…Venus pretty much pushes the envelope on every aspect of rocky-planet existence. And now here’s one more thing that made scientists do a double-take: a shape-shifting vortex swirling around Venus’ south pole!

The presence of a cyclonic storm around Venus’ poles – both north and south –  has been known since Mariner 10’s pass in 1974 and then afterwards during the Pioneer Venus mission when a downwardly-spiraling formation of clouds over the planet’s north pole was imaged in infrared. It wasn’t until ESA’s Venus Express orbiter arrived in 2006 that the cyclone at the south pole was directly observed via the Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS) instrument…and it proved to be much stranger than anything previously expected. Continue reading “A Varying Venusian Vortex”