New Satellite Launches to Track Space Junk

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The U.S. Air Force successfully launched the Space Based Space Surveillance spacecraft, a first-of-its-kind satellite that can detect and track orbiting space objects from space. The new satellite was blasted into orbit by a Minotaur IV rocket at 9:41 p.m. PDT, September 25th, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“SBSS will greatly enhance our existing space situational awareness capability, a capability vital to protecting our space-based assets,” said Colonel Richard Boltz from Vandenberg.

SBSS spacecraft. Image courtesy of Boeing.

There are about 500,000 known pieces of space junk – such as spent rocket boosters, failed satellites, and pieces of satellites – in Earth orbit. Of those, about 21,000 objects are larger than 10.1 cm (4 inches) in diameter. These are being tracked by the Department of Defense, as part of the Space Surveillance Network.

“This satellite is going to revolutionize the way we track objects in space by not being constrained by weather, the atmosphere or the time of day,” said Col. J.R. Jordan, vice-commander of the Space Superiority Systems Wing at the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, in a prelaunch briefing. “This capability will be essential to our space situational awareness architecture for the near future and beyond.”

The satellite will be fully operational and handed over to the Air Force Space Command in about 210 days. The SBSS will be able to detect, identify and tracking man-made space objects from deep space to low-earth orbit. The SBSS space vehicle uses a two-axis gimbal in order to observe in all directions. The spacecraft’s on-board mission data processor performs image processing to extract moving targets and reference star pixels to reduce the downlink data size.

This was the third launch in eight days from Vandenberg.

Source: Vandenberg AFB

New Satellite for Monitoring Space Debris To Launch

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The U.S. Air Force will launch the first-ever satellite dedicated solely to tracking the positions of other satellites and the thousands of pieces of space debris in Earth orbit. The $500 million Space-Based Space Surveillance satellite, scheduled for a July 8 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, will continuously monitor the “traffic” around the Earth, providing an unobstructed view day or night. Currently, the ground-based radar and optical telescopes used to track satellites and space junk can only be used on clear nights, and not all the observatories are powerful enough to detect objects in high or geosynchronous orbits.

This is the first satellite in the SBSS System that will eventually lead to a constellation of satellites to detect and track orbiting space objects, according to Boeing, the prime contractor for this first “Pathfinder” satellite. While the Air Force is the primary user of the SBSS satellites, the US Department of Defense will also use data from the eventual satellite system to support military operations, and NASA can use the information to calculate orbital debris collision-avoidance measures for the International Space Station and Space Shuttle missions.

The Air Force estimates there are about 1,000 functioning satellites and about 20,000 pieces of debris orbiting Earth.

The new satellite will be in orbit 627 kilometers (390 miles) above the Earth, and has an optical camera on a swivel mount, so the camera’s view can be changed without burning fuel to move the satellite, and will concentrate on satellites and debris in deep space. The information from the satellite will be sent to a command center at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.

The Air Force space surveillance network previously had partial use of a satellite called the Midcourse Space Experiment, which was designed to track missiles but could also monitor objects in orbit. It’s no longer functioning.

Right now, the Air Force can detect objects as small as 10 centimeters across, or about 4 inches, and they have not released information on the the capabilities of the new satellite.

The Secure World Foundation says there could be millions of pieces of debris in total around the Earth. Debris at altitudes above several hundred kilometers can stay in orbit for decades or even centuries, and those about 1,500 kilometers will remain in orbit for thousands of years. Even very small particles of space debris can have a devastating effect on anything they hit because of their high relative impact velocities.

Chart of orbital debris. Source: NASA Orbital Debris Quarterly News, April 2009,

This chart displays a summary of all objects in Earth orbit officially cataloged by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. “Fragmentation Debris” includes satellite breakup debris and anomalous event debris, while “Mission?related Debris” includes all objects dispensed, separated, or released as part of the planned mission. Note the dramatic increase in fragmentation debris caused by the Chinese ASAT test conducted in January 2007. Another smaller increase is noted following the 2009 collision between an Iridum communications satellite and a non-functioning Russian satellite.

It is hoped the new SBSS satellite will increase the capabilities to help avoid future collisions.

Sources: Boeing, Secure World Foundation, AP

South Korean Rocket Explodes 137 Seconds Into Flight

A South Korean rocket carrying a climate observation satellite apparently exploded 137 seconds into its flight early Thursday. The two-stage Naro rocket operated normally during and after liftoff from the country’s space center, Minister of Education, Science and Technology Ahn Byong-man said. But then communications with the rocket were lost.

This is the country’s second major space setback in less than a year.
Continue reading “South Korean Rocket Explodes 137 Seconds Into Flight”

Air Force Launches Next Generation GPS Satellite

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The first in a series of next-generation GPS satellites launched late Thursday from Cape Canaveral launch Complex 37 on board a Delta IV rocket. The Air Force’s Global Positioning System GPS IIF SV-1 satellite blasted off at 11 p.m. EDT on May 27, 2010, after overcoming three different launch aborts over the last week due to weather and technical glitches. Following its three hour, 33 minute flight into orbit, the new satellite has reached its orbit 18,000 km (11,000 miles) above the Earth, joining a constellation of 24 other GPS satellites that aids in military operations and helps civilians navigate the planet. Boeing, who built the satellite for the Air Force, said they acquired the first on-orbit signals from the new satellite early Friday, and all indications are that the spacecraft bus is functioning normally and ready to begin orbital maneuvers and operational testing.

This new era of GPS satellites are solar powered, designed for a minimum 12-year life. There will be a constellation of 12 of these new navigation satellites, which will have twice the signal accuracy of previous GPS satellites and are equipped with a new signal capability for more robust civilian and commercial aviation applications, Boeing said.

Close-up view of the Delta IV rocket before launch of the new GPS satellite. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today

For the United Launch Alliance, which prepared the Delta IV rocket, this was the 41st successful launch in the 41 months and six days since the company was created as a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. This launch also marked a milestone for the Delta rockets. The first Delta rocket, called a Thor-Delta booster, launched 50 years ago on May 13, 1960.

The Delta IV was first launched in 2002, and this is the rocket’s 13th successful flight. GPS IIF-SV1 is the first GPS satellite to launch on a Delta 4. Previous navigation satellites were launched on the smaller Delta 2 boosters, and upcoming GPS IIF constellation satellites are expected to fly on the Delta IV rockets or Atlas 5 boosters.

Sources: SatNews, Boeing

Now Witness the Firepower of This Fully Operational (and slow motion) Saturn V

This is so cool – and impressive, most impressive! A 16mm camera located near the base of the Saturn V rocket captured incredible detail about the ignition and lift off of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. The high-quality video slows down 30 second of footage to about 8 minutes, but it’s worth every second to watch! The narrator explains it all in great detail. You’ll see the first moments of ignition where the flames light and expand, then get sucked back into the flame trench; and fire and ice all in one video. It really is awesome!

Source: Huffington Post

STS-122 Shuttle Launch Decision on Tap

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NASA engineers continue to repair a faulty electrical connector on Space Shuttle Atlantis’ external fuel tank which has delayed the launch of the STS-122 mission to the International Space Station. An update of the progress on that work will be presented at a mission management team meeting scheduled for Thursday, January 3 and mission managers will perhaps then be prepared to announce a proposed launch date for Atlantis.

The repairs could take several days or even weeks. At a press briefing last week, shuttle program manager Wayne Hale declined to offer a probable launch date. “We’re in the middle of troubleshooting and repair,” he said. “Until that gets a little bit further along, I actually have no valid dates to give you. To avoid what I think would be a totally misleading headline along the lines of ‘NASA Delays the Space Shuttle Again,’ we’re just not going to give you a launch date because that, in fact, would not be accurate.”

The engine cutoff (ECO) fuel sensor system transmitted false readings during two launch countdowns for Atlantis earlier in December. A fueling test performed on December 18 isolated the problem to a 1 ½ -by 3 inch connector called a pass-through connector, located both inside and outside the tank. The wires for all four ECO sensors pass through the same connector. From the data of that test, engineers believe the problem lies in gaps between pins and sockets on the external side of the pass-through connector when the system is chilled to cryogenic temperatures, as when the tank is filled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen.

Engineers have removed the connector and are bench-testing the components in similar cryogenic conditions to try to duplicate the failure. Meanwhile, new hardware is being installed on the tank as the shuttle sits on launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

“We have allowed the team that did the troubleshooting to very thoroughly go through all the data,” said Hale. “They have told us they are sure the problems that we’re seeing reside in that series of connectors. Where exactly in that series of connectors is a little bit open to interpretation.”

The connectors on the inside of the tank are being visually inspected. “It is a possibility that the internal connector is involved,” Hale said. “However, all the physics based discussion of the kinds of things that can happen point to something happening on the external connector.”

Problems with the internal connector would involve “more invasive” work, Hale said, that could possibly damage the tank.

A similar repair was done to the Atlas rockets several years ago to fix problems with circuitry in the Centaur stage. ECO sensors protect the shuttle’s main engines by triggering engine shut down if fuel runs unexpectedly low. The Space shuttle main engines running without fuel would likely result in an explosion.

The STS-112 mission will deliver the European Space Agency’s Columbus science module to the station along with a new crew member Leopold Eyharts from France who will take over for Dan Tani. Tani, whose mother was killed in a car accident on December 19, will return to Earth on Atlantis.

“These repairs and troubleshooting activities will determine when we will launch” said Hale. “The plan to go forward will take as long as it takes, but we don’t think this will be a long-term thing. Probably something that will take a couple of weeks.”

Day of Troubleshooting Leads to Clues for Shuttle and ISS

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Tuesday, December 18 was a day of major troubleshooting for NASA, as the space agency tries to hunt down the causes of problems plaguing both the shuttle and the International Space Station. While the day ended with few definitive answers, NASA officials said the data they gathered — and even what they didn’t find — will help them make strides towards solving the issues.

A tanking test on the shuttle’s external fuel tank helped narrow down a problem with the engine cutoff sensors to a “pass-through” connector in the system, but shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said the exact problem is not yet known.

“Exactly what we’ve got to do and where in this three-part connector we have to do it is a little bit of work ahead of us,” he said. “I’m just pleased as punch we know it’s in the connector and not some other place in the 100 feet or so of wiring and sensors and electronic boxes so we know what area to concentrate our efforts.”

But how much work the fix will entail, or how the repairs might affect the proposed January 10 launch date is also in question.

“I do not have any information about a launch date today,” Hale said. “Where the troubleshooting and replacement and repair work leads us will determine what the launch date’s going to be. We are not going to be driven by schedule on this one. We need to get to the bottom of this, fix it and make sure it’s fixed once and for all and then we can fly safely through the rest of the program, at least in this area.”

However, Hale said he felt the problems could be turned around in fairly short order.
He said the problem appears to be temperature related, or perhaps related to the tightly sealed, almost vacuum like conditions the connector operates in.

The 1 1/2-by-3 inch connector is called a pass-through connector because it is located both inside and outside the tank. The part that will be difficult to get to is the socket connector on the inside of the tank. Engineers would have to go inside the ET through a “man-hole cover” in the bottom of the tank, and that would entail a longer time to fix the problem.

Engineers are still troubleshooting some issues in bench tests away from the shuttle, and more data will be presented to program managers on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, two ISS astronauts conducted a seven hour spacewalk on Tuesday, inspecting problems with two unrelated mechanisms that allow the station’s solar wings to track the sun for power. It was the 100th EVA in support of station construction and maintenence.

Station commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Dan Tani first looked at a malfunctioning beta gimbal assembly that tilts the the starboard solar arrays to face the sun. Engineers thought that perhaps a micrometeoroid hit may have damaged the device, but the astronauts found no evidence of any impacts. The spacewalkers temporarily disconnected cables and a subsequent test found that the motor most likely is the problem. A new motor will be installed during the next shuttle mission.

The issues with the solar array rotary joint, a huge mechanism that also automatically rotates the solar arrays to face the sun, will require more work, contemplation and likely several spacewalks to fix. No “smoking gun” was found as to what is causing the joint to vibrate and display electrical spikes. In addition, metal shavings were found during an earlier inspection of the SARJ. Space station program manager Mike Suffredini said repairs probably won’t begin until next fall after a station crew can be trained to repair the joint. The shuttle crews “to-do” lists are already filled for the remaining shuttle flights in order to finish the construction of the ISS.

Mike Suffredini said the station team is “challenged” by the issues they are facing in the two repairs.

“The fact that it (the SARJ) looked as we expected is an enormous amount of information for us,” said Sufradini. “It would be really nice if something stood out and said ‘hey, I’m the cause of your problem,’ but we didn’t get that.”

Original News Source: NASA TV