Launches and Dockings and Robots, Oh My!

Regolith challenge participant vehicle. Credit: Jamie Foster.

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It was a busy weekend in the world of space flight — both present and future — and so we’ll try to fit it all in one article, and include a couple of videos to help tell the stories. Before that, however, just a reminder that the Ares-I-X is slated to roll out to launchpad 39-B early Tuesday morning at 12:01 am EDT, to begin preparations for the scheduled Oct. 27 first test launch. If you’re an early bird, (or a night owl) watch the six-hour trip on NASA TV.

And now on to this weekend’s launch story:

The 600th launch of an Atlas rocket took place on a foggy Sunday morning, Oct. 18, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. A new global weather observatory (DMSP F-18) for America’s military was lofted into polar orbit. Watch the video below, and click here to watch a video of the Centaur upper stage which created a sensation as it flew over Europe later in the day when it dumped a load of excess propellant.

On Saturday, Oct. 17, A Progress cargo spacecraft, delivering 2.5 tons of supplies, successfully docked to the space station at 9:40 pm EDT. Here’s the video replay of that event from NASA TV:

Also on Sunday, nineteen teams pushed their robot competitors to the limit, and three teams claimed a total of $750,000 in NASA prizes at this year’s Regolith Excavation Challenge on Oct. 18. This is the first time in the competition’s three-year history that any team qualified for a cash prize, the largest NASA has awarded to date.

After two days of intense competition hosted at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., organizers conferred first place prize of $500,000 to Paul’s Robotics of Worcester, Mass. Terra Engineering of Gardena, Calif., was a three-time returning competitor and was awarded second place prize of $150,000, and Team Braundo of Rancho Palos Verde, Calif., took the third place of $100,000 as a first-time competitor.

Competitors were required to use mobile, robotic digging machines capable of excavating at least 330 pounds of simulated moon dirt, known as regolith, and depositing it into a container in 30 minutes or less. The rules required the remotely controlled vehicles to contain their own power sources and weigh no more than 176 pounds.

Read more about the competition here, and see lots more images and videos of the event here.

Tweet Your Way to the Next Space Shuttle Launch

Space shuttle Atlantis on top of one of the mobile launcher platforms at Launch Pad 39A. Credit: NASA

Space shuttle Atlantis rolled out to Launch Pad 39A on Wednesday in preparation for the next shuttle flight, STS-129, currently scheduled for liftoff on Nov. 12, 2009 at 4:04 p.m. EST. And in case you haven’t heard, for the first time, NASA is inviting those who use Twitter to view a space shuttle launch in person. The first 100 people who sign up on NASA’s website will be granted access to Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 11 and 12 for the opportunity to take a tour of the facilities, view the space shuttle launch and speak with shuttle technicians, engineers, astronauts and managers. The Tweetup will include a “meet and greet” session to allow participants to mingle with fellow Tweeps and the staff behind the tweets on @NASA. An additional 50 registrants will be added to a waitlist. Registration opens at noon EDT on Friday, Oct. 16. To sign up and for more information click here.

Those chosen are responsible for their own transportation, lodging and food. To be eligible, you must have a Twitter account.

“This will be NASA’s fifth Tweetup for our Twitter community,” said NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage. “Each event has provided our followers with inside access to NASA personnel, including astronauts. The goal of this particular Tweetup is to share the excitement of a shuttle launch with a new audience.”

The STS-129 mission will be heading to the International Space Station to deliver two control moment gyroscopes and other equipment, plus the EXPRESS Logistics Carrier 1 and 2 to the station. The mission will feature three spacewalks.

This is also scheduled to be the last space shuttle crew rotation flight, and will return station crew member Nicole Stott to Earth.

STS-129 will be commanded by Charlie Hobaugh and piloted by Barry Wilmore. Mission Specialists are Robert Satcher Jr., Mike Foreman, Randy Bresnik and Leland Melvin. Wilmore, Satcher and Bresnik will be making their first trips to space.

Deep Impact

NASA's Deep Impact probe hits Comet Tempel 1 (NASA)

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Deep Impact is the name of a NASA space mission whose primary objective was to study Comet Tempel 1 (a.k.a. 9P/Tempel). It was launched on 12 January, 2005, and the smart impactor crashed into the comet on 4 July, 2005.

Oh, and yes, Deep Impact is also the name of a movie … but the two have no connection (the science team came up with their name independently of the Hollywood studio), other than that they both concern a comet!

Comets had been the focus of several space probes before Deep Impact, perhaps the most famous of which is the ESA’s Giotto flyby of Comet Halley. However, flybys could not, and cannot, tell us much about what’s beneath the cometary surface; in particular, what the relative amounts of ices and dust is, how porous the comet body is, and so on. The Deep Impact mission was designed to address many of these unknowns.

The space probe consisted of two parts, a 370 kg copper Smart Impactor – that smashed into the comet – and the Flyby section, which watched the impact from a safe distance. In addition, many ground-based telescopes – including those of thousands of amateurs – and some space-based ones, watched the event from an even safer distance.

The mission was a great success in that the heavy copper section did, in fact, smash into the comet, and the other section did observe the impact up-close-and-personal, but safely. A great deal was learned about this comet – its composition and mechanical strength, etc – and comets in general. However, the plume which resulted from the impact was much denser than expected, so the Flyby did not get any images of the impact crater itself.

After the encounter with Comet Tempel 1, an extended mission for the Flyby was designed and implemented, called EPOXI, after its two objectives: the Extrasolar Planet Observation and Characterization (EPOCh) and the Deep Impact Extended Investigation (DIXI) … hence Extrasolar Planet Observation and Deep Impact Extended Investigation. The former uses the larger telescope on the space probe to look for exoplanet transits; the latter is a flyby of another comet, Hartley 2, now expected on 11 October, 2010.

There are several official Deep Impact websites, including NASA’s, JPL’s (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and the University of Maryland’s on EPOXI.

The Deep Impact mission resulted in lots of Universe Today stories, far too many to mention here. Some of the best are Deep Impact Smashes into Temple 1, What the Ground Telescopes Saw During Deep Impact, Deep Impact Turns Up Cometary Ice, and Deep Impact Begins Searching for Extrasolar Planets.

Comets, our Icy Friends from the Outer Solar System is a good Astronomy Cast episode which gives a good background on comets.

Source: NASA

NASA Astronaut Dies

Astronaut Frank Caldeiro, 1958-2009. Credit: NASA

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NASA astronaut Fernando “Frank” Caldeiro died Saturday morning after a two and a half year battle with brain cancer. Although he never flew in space, Caldeiro served as the lead astronaut in several technical support roles. “Frank was a valued member of the astronaut corps and the Flight Crew Operations team,” said Brent Jett, director, Flight Crew Operations. “He provided a wealth of experience and made significant contributions to the success of both the WB-57 project and the Space Shuttle Program. He will be missed by all those who knew him at NASA. Our hearts go out to his family.” Caldeiro was 51.

More on Caldeiro:

He was the first person of Argentinean descent to train for a space flight. Caldeiro joined NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla., in 1991 as a cryogenics and propulsion systems expert for the safety and mission assurance office, he took part in 52 space shuttle launches before being selected as an astronaut in 1996.

He served as the lead astronaut for the station’s life support systems and its European-built components, reviewing the design and manufacture of the U.S. “Harmony” Node 2 and European Space Agency (ESA) Columbus modules, as well as the yet-to-be-launched Cupola robotics viewing port and the space shuttle-lofted cargo carriers, the Multi Purpose Logistics Modules (MPLM).

From June 2005 to December 2006, Caldeiro served as the lead astronaut in charge of shuttle software testing at the Johnson Space Center’s Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory, testing in-flight maintenance procedures, prior to being reassigned to Houston’s nearby Ellington Field to direct the high-altitude atmospheric research experiment program carried onboard NASA’s WB-57 aircraft. He was still serving in that role when he passed away.

Caldeiro however, would never be assigned to a mission.

In 2006, he told the Orlando Sentinel, “Flying in space, to me, has become more like, well, you know, you can’t chase something so much that you run it over. You can be obsessed by it and be miserable or you can say, ‘Well, this is an opportunity; I’m first in line in front of 350-million other people.'”

His family migrated to the US from Argentina when Caldeiro was 16. He didn’t speak any English at that time, but went on to complete a Master of Science degree in engineering management from the University of Central Florida. In 2002, he was named National Hispanic Scientist of the Year by the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, Florida. That same year, he was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans under the “No Child Left Behind” Act.

He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

Sources: NASA, collectSPACE

International Space Station Viewing

The ISS. Credit: NASA

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Now that it’s mostly complete, the International Space Station is the brightest human-built object in space. It’s easy to see with your own eyes, the trick is knowing when to step outside and look up to see the station go overhead. If you do get your timing right, you’ll see the station as a bright star moving quickly in the sky. It only take a couple of minutes to pass through the sky above your house. Want to see the station for yourself? Here are some resources for International Space Station viewing.

The best place to go is NASA’s Human Spaceflight tracking page. This shows you the current location of the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and any space shuttles currently in orbit.

So that shows you where the space station and shuttles are right now, but how will you know when they’re going to be passing over your part of the Earth?

NASA has a page for sighting opportunities. You can either choose your location from a list of common locations around the world, or you download an application that lets you pick your specific spot on Earth. It will then tell you the exact times ISS will be passing overhead.

If you’ve got an iPhone, check out the ISS Visibility App. This tool will calculate the next times you’ll be able to see the ISS pass overhead.

You can also use a great service called Heavens Above. This will also show you the current location of satellites, as give you times when ISS will be passing overhead.

We have written many articles about the International Space Station for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how ISS is now visible in the daytime.

We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about the space shuttle. Listen to it here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.

NASA Pictures

NASA has the absolute best resources on the web for pictures of space. We write so many articles about space here on Universe Today, so we’ve learned all the best places to look to get the latest and greatest NASA pictures.

Before we go right to some sites, here’s a general tip that you can use when you’re looking for NASA pictures. Use Google, but have it search for images within NASA’s sites. For example, let’s say that you’re looking for an astronomy picture of Mars, but you want it to be a NASA image. Search in Google for: mars picture site:nasa.gov. You can also switch over to the images tab and see lots and lots of images from NASA. You should be able to find the one you’re looking for.

Perhaps the best place to start is NASA’s Featured Images and Galleries. This is linked from the main NASA page and features current pictures as well as classics from the past. It also links you to other NASA image gallery sites.

Another classic is the Astronomy Picture of the Day. Keep in mind that although it’s endorsed by NASA, the pictures featured in Astronomy Picture of the Day are owned and copyright by the original photographers. So you can’t just use their pictures without asking permission first.

There’s a fairly new service out called NASA Images. It’s got a huge catalog of NASA pictures, with cool tools that let you organize and download your favorites.

The NASA Image Exchange is a huge database of NASA pictures. You can search by object, or by spacecraft and use other constraints to find the exact image you’re looking for.

The Johnson Digital Image Collection has photographs from all of NASA’s human spaceflight, from the original Mercury and Gemini flights, though the Apollo landings, right up until the space shuttle missions.

And if you want pictures of Earth, check out NASA’s Visible Earth site or the NASA’s Earth Observatory.

If you want pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, here’s their homepage HubbleSite.

Want NASA photos from specific spacecraft? Here’s NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, here are the Mars Exploration Rovers, and here’s Mercury MESSENGER.

That should get you started.

We have written many articles about NASA and its photography here on Universe Today. Check out this gallery of images from the STS-127 shuttle mission. And here are images from the shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

We have also recorded many episodes of Astronomy Cast about space, and we talk about NASA pictures all the time. Listen to this, Episode 88: The Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA Has a Little Fun With Buzz

Buzz Lightyear returns from 15 months in the ISS. Credit: NASA. Click for larger image.

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Buzz Lightyear, that is. The action figure returned from space on Sept. 11, aboard space shuttle Discovery’s STS-128 mission after 15 months aboard the International Space Station. Word has it that Disney is quite excited about his return, and will give him a ticker-tape parade on October 2, along with some of his his space station crewmates and the original Buzz, Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin, at Walt Disney World in Florida.

So what was Buzz doing on the ISS?

While in space Buzz supported NASA’s education outreach program — STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)–by creating a series of fun educational online outreach programs. Following his return, Disney is partnering with NASA to create a new online educational game and an online mission patch competition for school kids across America. NASA will fly the winning patch in space. In addition, NASA plans to announce on Oct. 2, 2009, the details of a new exciting educational competition that will give students the opportunity to design an experiment for the astronauts on the space station.

Source: NASA

ISS Tracking

International Space Station. Credit: NASA

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The International Space Station, or ISS, is the largest object every built by humans in space. And because it’s so large, it’s also very bright; easily visible with the unaided eye. The ISS also follows an orbital track that takes over different parts of the Earth. That means if you know the right time, you can go out and watch the station pass right over. But you need to know the right time, and that requires some kind of ISS tracking tool. Let’s take a look at some ISS tracking tools you can use to tell you when you should head outside and look up.

The best place to track ISS is from NASA’s human space flight ISS tracking page. This site will tell you the current location of the International Space Station, and space shuttles currently in flight, and the Hubble Space Telescope. The problem is that this tells you where the space station is right now, and not when it’s going to be passing through your skies… at night.

A better tool for that is the ISS sightings page. You download an applet that lets you put in your place on Earth and it gives you some upcoming dates and times that the station will be passing overhead. There’s also a quick drop down box, where you can select your location from many places in the world.

Another great tool is Heavens Above. It allows you to track the current position of thousands of satellites, including ISS and the space shuttles, when they’re in orbit.

So use one of these tools for ISS tracking, and then head outside and see if you can see the station with your own eyes.

We have written many articles about the International Space Station. Here’s an article about how you can actually see ISS in the daytime; it’s just that bright. And here’s an image of ISS and the shuttle transiting the Sun.

We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast that talks about the Space Station’s orbit.

After Loss of Lunar Orbiter, India Looks to Mars Mission

India Moon Mission
Artist concept of Chandrayaan-1 orbiting the moon. Credit: ISRO

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After giving up on re-establishing contact with the Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Chairman G. Madhavan Nair announced the space agency hopes to launch its first mission to Mars sometime between 2013 and 2015. Nair said the termination of Chandrayaan-1, although sad, is not a setback and India will move ahead with its plans for the Chandrayaan-2 mission to land an unmanned rover on the moon’s surface to prospect for chemicals, and in four to six years launch a robotic mission to Mars.


“We have given a call for proposal to different scientific communities,” Nair told reporters. “Depending on the type of experiments they propose, we will be able to plan the mission. The mission is at conceptual stage and will be taken up after Chandrayaan-2.”

On the decision to quickly pull the plug on Chandrayaan-1, Nair said, “There was no possibility of retrieving it. (But) it was a great success. We could collect a large volume of data, including more than 70,000 images of the moon. In that sense, 95 percent of the objective was completed.”

Contact with Chandrayaan-1 may have been lost because its antenna rotated out of direct contact with Earth, ISRO officials said. Earlier this year, the spacecraft lost both its primary and back-up star sensors, which use the positions of stars to orient the spacecraft.

The loss of Chandrayaan-1 comes less than a week after the spacecraft’s orbit was adjusted to team up with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter for a Bi-static radar experiment. During the maneuver, Chandrayaan-1 fired its radar beam into Erlanger Crater on the moon’s north pole. Both spacecraft listened for echoes that might indicate the presence of water ice – a precious resource for future lunar explorers. The results of that experiment have not yet been released.

Chandrayaan-1 craft was designed to orbit the moon for two years, but lasted 315 days. It will take about 1,000 days until it crashes to the lunar surface and is being tracked by the U.S. and Russia, ISRO said.

The Chandrayaan I had 11 payloads, including a terrain-mapping camera designed to create a three-dimensional atlas of the moon. It is also carrying mapping instruments for the European Space Agency, radiation-measuring equipment for the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and two devices for NASA, including the radar instrument to assess mineral composition and look for ice deposits. India launched its first rocket in 1963 and first satellite in 1975. The country’s satellite program is one of the largest communication systems in the world.

Sources: New Scientist, Xinhuanet

“Feelings” Are Back at NASA

Garver and Bolden after they were sworn into office. Credit: NASA

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Steely-eyed missile men may still be a part of NASA, but the space agency’s newly sworn-in administrator says he is an unabashed hugger and admits to crying easily. “One more thing you’ll learn about me, I cry,” said Charlie Bolden at an all-hands video meeting with the NASA centers. “I think it’s important to be passionate.” Bolden’s Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said she’s a hugger, too and as Bolden and Garver hugged on stage, Garver exclaimed, “Feelings are not something that were popular in the last few years at NASA, but they’re back. Feelings are back!”

Garver was obviously referring to former administrator Mike Griffin, who once said, “I don’t do feelings, just think of me as Spock.”

Bolden, a retired Marine Corps general and four-time shuttle astronaut, spoke at length about himself and his hopes for NASA’s future. He asked NASA employees in attendance to raise their hands if they didn’t think NASA should go to Mars. When no one raised their hands, he said, “We all agree we want humans to go to Mars, we don’t agree on how to get there. The challenge is to figure out the most efficient, most cost-effective path to get there. We can’t get there the way we’re doing it right now, with a whole bunch of different people thinking we’ll do a little of that and a little of this. We need to come together with a coherent plan.”

A presidential panel is reviewing options for the NASA’s human space program and is expected to issue its report next month. Bolden told workers the review is “nothing to be afraid of.”

Also, a second review encompassing all areas of space — military, commercial, civil and scientific — is under way by the national security advisor, James Jones, a retired four-star Marine general.

“There needs to be a coherent policy and so President Obama has asked General Jones to put together a group to take a look at the national space policy,” Bolden said.

Bolden said he wants working at NASA to be fun. “I will make mistakes, but I’m going to have fun, and I want all of you (NASA work force) to have fun,” he said. However, he cautioned that working in space is a risky business, and not everything is fun. “NASA is in the news every day and there’s always the potential for it to be bad news when we have people in space.”

Showing that she is in touch with the public’s views of NASA Garver shared some encouraging poll results about public opinion of NASA. Of those polled, 72 per cent have a positive impression of NASA. That’s better than Apple, Garver said, which got only a 63 per cent rating.

“We are more popular than your iPod,” she said.

Both Bolden and Garver said they were incredibly proud to be working at NASA again. “I look forward to working with you all,” Bolden said, “and we have some important things we have to do.”