Expedition 32 Crew Lifts Off

At 9:40 p.m. CDT a Soyuz TMA-05M rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying Expedition 32 Commander Yuri Malenchenko, NASA Flight Engineer Sunita “Suni” Williams and JAXA Flight Engineer Akihiko Hoshide to the International Space Station. It was a beautiful launch on a hot summer day at the Cosmodrome — watch the video after the jump:

(My favorite part was when the Soyuz punched a hole in the clouds!)

Exact time of the launch was 9:40:3.91 CDT, docking with the ISS will occur on Monday at 11:52 p.m. CDT. Read more about the crew of Expedition 32 here.

Of historical note, the Expedition 32 launch occurred on the same day that the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project launched in 1975. Designed to test the compatibility of rendezvous and docking systems and the possibility of an international space rescue, the nine-day Apollo-Soyuz mission brought together two former spaceflight rivals: the United States and the Soviet Union. Without the success of that project, we might not have had an International Space Station in orbit today.


Images: NASA/Carla Cioffi. Video: NASA HD TV/Ustream

NASA To Launch The Finest Mirrors Ever Made

This Wednesday NASA will launch its High Resolution Coronal Imager (HI-C) mission from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, sending a sounding rocket above the atmosphere with some of the best mirrors ever made to capture incredibly-detailed ultraviolet images of our Sun.

HI-C will use a state-of-the-art imaging system to focus on a region near the center of the Sun about 135,000 miles (271,000 km) across. During its brief flight — only ten minutes long — HI-C will return some of the most detailed images of the Sun’s corona ever acquired, with a resolution five times that of previous telescopes… including NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

While SDO collects images in ten wavelengths, however, HI-C will focus on just one: 193 Angstroms, a wavelength of ultraviolet radiation that best reveals the structures of the Sun’s corona present in temperatures of 1.5 million kelvin. And although HI-C’s mirrors aren’t any larger than SDO’s — about 9.5 inches in diameter — they are “some of the finest ever made.” In addition, an interior “maze” between mirrors effectively increases HI-C’s focal length.

Researchers expect HI-C’s super-smooth mirrors to resolve coronal structures as small as 100 miles (160 km) across (0.1 arcsec/pixel).

“Other instruments in space can’t resolve things that small, but they do suggest – after detailed computer analysis of the amount of light in any given pixel – that structures in the sun’s atmosphere are about 100 miles across,” said Jonathan Cirtain, project scientist for HI-C at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “And we also have theories about the shapes of structures in the atmosphere, or corona, that expect that size. HI-C will be the first chance we have to see them.”

One of the main goals of HI-C will be to place significant new constraints on theories of coronal heating and structuring, by observing the small-scale processes that exist everywhere in hot magnetized coronal plasma and establishing whether or not there are additional structures below what can currently be seen.

“This instrument could push the limits on theories of coronal heating, answering questions such as why the temperature of the sun’s corona is millions of degrees higher than that of the surface,” said Marshall’s Dr. Jonathan Cirtain, heliophysicist and principle investigator on the mission.

Read more on the NASA news release here.

Top image: A Black Brant sounding rocket containing NASA’s HI-C mission will launch on July 11, 2012 to observe the sun’s corona. (NASA) Bottom image: TRACE image of the Sun at a resolution of 0.5 arcsec/pixel. HI-C will have a resolution 5 times finer.

What Will Happen During Tomorrow’s SpaceX Launch:

With less than a day left before SpaceX’s historic launch of the first commercial vehicle to the ISS, slated for 4:55 am EDT on Saturday, May 19, here’s a video of what will happen once the Falcon lifts off.

(Part of me really wishes that they’ll be pumping out some dramatic music when it launches!)

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The video, created by NASA in 2011, shows the events that will take place from the initial launch at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral facility to the release of the Dragon capsule and its eventual docking with the ISS on Tuesday, as well as its return to Earth (yes, it’s reusable!)

The Dragon capsule contains 674 lbs (305 kg) of food and supplies for the Expedition 31 crew.

In addition to what’s aboard Dragon, the Falcon rocket will also be taking the cremated remains of 308 people — including Star Trek actor James Doohan and NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper — into space, via a private company called Celestis.

Read more about tomorrow’s launch here. And to watch the event live, stay tuned to SpaceX.com.

Video: NASA

Update 5/19: As it turned out, none of the above occurred. Instead, this happened. Maybe better luck on Tuesday!

Expedition 31 Blasts Off!

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After a six-week delay, the crew of Expedition 31 successfully launched aboard a Soyuz TMA-04M rocket on Tuesday, May 15 at 0301 GMT (11:01 p.m. EDT May 14) from Russia’s historic Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in the steppes of Kazakhstan.

The rocket will deliver NASA astronaut Joe Acaba and Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin to the International Space Station. After a two-day journey, their Soyuz capsule will dock with the ISS at 11:38 p.m. CDT on Wednesday.

The launch was aired live by NASA HD TV. The full launch can be viewed below:

The crew was originally slated to launch on March 30, but problems with a pressure test forced a delay until a new Soyuz rocket could be brought into service. In the meantime ISS crew members Don Pettit, ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers and cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko have had the station to themselves since April 27.

The three new crew members will remain on Space Station until mid-September, serving as flight engineers under Expedition 31 commander Oleg Kononenko until July 1, when the current crew will depart and Padalka will assume command, marking the beginning of Expedition 32.

For more news on Expedition 31, visit NASA’s ISS website here. Also, you can follow NASA astronaut Joe Acaba on Twitter @AstroAcaba.

Members of the media photograph the Soyuz TMA-04M rocket launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Video credit: NASA TV. Images: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The View From Freedom 7


51 years ago today, on May 5, 1961, NASA launched the Mercury-Redstone 3 rocket carrying Alan B. Shepard, Jr. aboard the Freedom 7 capsule. Shepard successfully became America’s first man in space, making a brief but historic suborbital test flight that propelled American astronauts into the space race of the 1960s.

The video above is made from photographs taken by a film camera mounted to the Freedom 7 spacecraft and scanned by archivists at Johnson Space Center. It shows the view from Freedom 7 as the Redstone rocket launched it into space, getting an amazing view of Earth’s limb and the blackness beyond before falling back to splash down in the Atlantic.
The video is made from the entire film reel, so at the end there’s also some shots of a light experiment inside the spacecraft. (View the individual scans at ASU’s March to the Moon website here.)

What’s amazing to realize is that, at this point in time, the space surrounding our planet was a very empty place. This was a time before communication and weather satellites, before GPS, before Space Station and space shuttles — and space junk —  and student-made weather balloon videos. Just 51 years ago low-Earth orbit was a new frontier, and guys like Shepard (and Gagarin and Glenn, etc.) were blazing the path for everyone that followed.

Even though images of Earth from space are still amazing to look at today, seeing these photos reminds us of a time when it was all just so very new.

Read more about Shepard and the MR-3 launch here.

Images and video: NASA/JSC/Arizona State University

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Yes, As a Matter of Fact It IS Rocket Science

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On the afternoon of February 24, 2012, at 5:15 p.m. EST local time, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifted off from the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base carrying in its payload the US Navy’s next-generation narrowband communications satellite MUOS-1. After two scrubbed launches the previous week due to weather, the third time was definitely a charm for ULA, and the launch went nominally (that’s science talk for “awesome”.)

But what made that day, that time the right time to launch? Do they just like ending a work week with a rocket launch? (Not that I could blame them!) And what about the weather… why go through the trouble to prepare for a launch at all if the weather doesn’t look promising? Where’s the logic in that?

As it turns out, when it comes to launches, it really is rocket science.

There are a lot of factors involved with launches. Obviously all the incredible engineering it takes to even plan and build a launch vehicle, and of course its payload — whatever it happens to be launching in the first place. But it sure doesn’t end there.

Launch managers need to take into consideration the needs of the mission, where the payload has to ultimately end up in orbit… or possibly even beyond. Timing is critical when you’re aiming at moving targets — in this case the targets being specific points in space (literally.) Then there’s the type of rocket being used, and where it is launching from. Only then can weather come into the equation, and usually only at the last minute to determine if the countdown will proceed before the launch window closes.

How big that launch window may be — from a few hours to a few minutes — depends on many things.

Kennedy Space Center’s Anna Helney recently assembled an article “Aiming for an Open Window” that explains how this process works:

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The most significant deciding factors in when to launch are where the spacecraft is headed, and what its solar needs are. Earth-observing spacecraft, for example, may be sent into low-Earth orbit. Some payloads must arrive at a specific point at a precise time, perhaps to rendezvous with another object or join a constellation of satellites already in place. Missions to the moon or a planet involve aiming for a moving object a long distance away.

For example, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft began its eight-month journey to the Red Planet on Nov. 26, 2011 with a launch aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. After the initial push from the powerful Atlas V booster, the Centaur upper stage then sent the spacecraft away from Earth on a specific track to place the laboratory, with its car-sized Curiosity rover, inside Mars’ Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. Due to the location of Mars relative to Earth, the prime planetary launch opportunity for the Red Planet occurs only once every 26 months.

Additionally, spacecraft often have solar requirements: they may need sunlight to perform the science necessary to meet the mission’s objectives, or they may need to avoid the sun’s light in order to look deeper into the dark, distant reaches of space.

A Delta II arcs across the sky carrying NASA's Suomi NPP spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Such precision was needed for NASA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) spacecraft, which launched Oct. 28, 2011 aboard a ULA Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Earth-observing satellite circles at an altitude of 512 miles, sweeping from pole to pole 14 times each day as the planet turns on its axis. A very limited launch window was required so that the spacecraft would cross the ascending node at exactly 1:30 p.m. local time and scan Earth’s surface twice each day, always at the same local time.

All of these variables influence a flight’s trajectory and launch time. A low-Earth mission with specific timing needs must lift off at the right time to slip into the same orbit as its target; a planetary mission typically has to launch when the trajectory will take it away from Earth and out on the correct course.

According to [Eric Haddox, the lead flight design engineer in NASA’s Launch Services Program], aiming for a specific target — another planet, a rendezvous point, or even a specific location in Earth orbit where the solar conditions will be just right — is a bit like skeet shooting.

“You’ve got this object that’s going to go flying out into the air and you’ve got to shoot it,” said Haddox. “You have to be able to judge how far away your target is and how fast it’s moving, and make sure you reach the same point at the same time.”

But Haddox also emphasized that Earth is rotating on its axis while it orbits the sun, making the launch pad a moving platform. With so many moving players, launch windows and trajectories must be carefully choreographed.

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It’s a fascinating and complex set of issues that mission managers need to get just right in order to ensure the success of a launch — and thus the success of a mission, whether it be putting a communication satellite into orbit or a rover onto Mars… or somewhere much, much farther than that.

Read the rest of the article here.

Two Days of Tweetness: Witnessing a Shuttle Launch

Space Tweeps Unite! NASA Tweetup participants gather at the launch clock on Friday, July 8, 2011. © NASA HQ Photo

It’s been over a week since the NASA Tweetup and I’m still thinking about it. For good reason, of course… it was awesome.

Over the course of two days I saw a capsule that had been to space and back, talked with five astronauts (one currently in orbit!), toured Kennedy Space Center, met a muppet, touched a piece of the Moon, made dozens of new friends and, of course, watched, heard and felt the launch of the last space shuttle to leave Earth. (And managed to talk my way into a delicious barbecue sandwich inside the Vehicle Assembly Building.) All with less than six hours of sleep.

Not too shabby. 😉

Continue reading “Two Days of Tweetness: Witnessing a Shuttle Launch”

Bringing You There: Atlantis Roars into Orbit One Final Time

Videographers David Gonzales, Kurt Johnson and Mike Deep filmed the final launch of the Space Shuttle from the Kennedy Space Center Press Site.  The team used multiple cameras along with a high definition stereo audio recording device to capture the sights and sounds as Atlantis thundered into orbit. The goal was to provide the closest launch experience for the viewer without actually being there.

A Space Shuttle launch is a spectacle that will never again be seen.  The sequence begins with a tight shot of the pad in the final seconds of the count.  As the 3 Space Shuttle Main Engines ignite they flash water from the sound suppression water system into steam, sending a plume billowing away.   The entire stack rocks a couple of feet before settling back vertical. The Solid Rocket boosters ignite, launching out a second plume and lifting the 4.5 million pound stack off the ground. Spectators erupt into cheers and the shutters of thousands of press cameras click away.

Continue reading “Bringing You There: Atlantis Roars into Orbit One Final Time”

The Final Countdown: Fueling the Anticipation

An update on my NASA Tweetup adventure…

The world will be watching - and tweeting! – when Atlantis launches on July 8
The launch of the space shuttle Atlantis is just a week away, and with it the NASA Tweetup event of a lifetime. (Well, my lifetime anyway!) But it’s not just me who’s been having visions of shuttle plumes dancing in his head… there’s 149 other space tweeps (yes, that’s what we call ourselves) who are eagerly counting the days, hours and minutes until then.

Here’s what some of them are saying…

“Wicked excited! (says the Boston gal – who yes, now lives in the Midwest!)” – Leslie Berg

“I’m so excited, and I just can’t hide it….” – David Parmet

“This has been a dream of mine since the first launch. I was so sad when I was unable to attend STS-134 with the delays and so excited when I found out that I could at least see the last launch paid to change my plane ticket to NYC for summer.” Dvora Geller

“It’s an honor to be chosen by NASA to be a part of the last flight in shuttle history.” – Heather Smith

“NASA has continued to fill the history books with their profound and inspirational achievements. I can’t believe I’ll witness another significant page being written for that book, in person, up close, on July 8th!! Bring it!!” – Justin Boddey

With people attending the Tweetup from not only all over the US but also all around the world, this is an awesome representation of the international attention that the final launch is getting.

Also, after some scouting about for the right contact person (thanks Susan!) I managed to get in touch with the metro editor at the Dallas Morning News and he assigned a reporter to cover my story. I had a phone interview this afternoon with her, and the story should be published next Tuesday! In addition they want to feature my Tweets on the news site live from the launch…I sure hope the 3G signal coverage isn’t overwhelmed!

Anyway by this time next week I and 149 others from around the world will be preparing for a very exciting morning… it’s going to be crazy, I’m sure, but totally worth it!

Stay tuned….

“I spend several moments a day suppressing the urge to freak right out over the fact that I’m going to be as close to going into space as I’ve ever been. There’s also a 9 year old in my head screaming SPACE SHUTTLE! all the time. It’s really distracting. I feel so lucky.” – Nicole KT Winchester

“Since the day I found out I was selected to attend the Tweetup, it’s been on my mind every minute of every day. I’m basically trying not to die before July 7th.” – Andres Almeida

“I can pretty much guarantee my reaction to seeing a space shuttle live, in person, will be, ‘Whoah.’ Followed shortly by, ‘That’s pretty.'” – Kara DeFrias

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Jason Major is a graphic designer, photo enthusiast and space blogger. Visit his website Lights in the Dark and follow him on Twitter @JPMajor or on Facebook for the most up-to-date astronomy awesomeness!

The Final Countdown: A Tweetup Journal

The last space shuttle: Atlantis awaits its final launch. Credit: NASA

On July 8, less than a month from now, the last remaining space shuttle is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral. The STS-135 mission will bring supplies and parts up to the International Space Station and will be the historic conclusion of the 30-year-long shuttle program.

Unless otherwise rescheduled, at 11:40am on Friday, July 8, the big clock will count down, the rocket boosters will ignite, the steam will billow and the shuttle Atlantis will roar into the sky for one final, glorious time.

And I’ll be there.

(*exhale*)

Continue reading “The Final Countdown: A Tweetup Journal”