Morpheus Lander Crashes and Burns

NASA’s “lean and green” Morpheus lander crashed and burned during a free flight test at Kennedy Space Center today, August 9, at approximately 12:46 pm EDT.

Watch a video of the failed test after the jump:


Designed in-house at Johnson Space Center, the Morpheus lander is engineered to use a liquid oxygen and methane fuel — relatively cheap materials that can be stored easily and would be available resources on other worlds besides Earth.

Morpheus’ first successful tethered flight had just occurred a few days earlier, on August 3.

It IS still rocket science, after all…

Images: NASA TV

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

New “Flying Tea Kettle” Could Get Us To Mars in Weeks, Not Months

At 54.6 million km away at its closest, the fastest travel to Mars from Earth using current technology (and no small bit of math) takes around 214 days — that’s about 30 weeks, or 7 months. A robotic explorer like Curiosity may not have any issues with that, but it’d be a tough journey for a human crew. Developing a quicker, more efficient method of propulsion for interplanetary voyages is essential for future human exploration missions… and right now a research team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville is doing just that.

This summer, UAHuntsville researchers, partnered with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Boeing, are laying the groundwork for a propulsion system that uses powerful pulses of nuclear fusion created within hollow 2-inch-wide “pucks” of lithium deuteride. And like hockey pucks, the plan is to “slapshot” them with plasma energy, fusing the lithium and hydrogen atoms inside and releasing enough force to ultimately propel a spacecraft — an effect known as “Z-pinch”.

“If this works,” said Dr. Jason Cassibry, an associate professor of engineering at UAH, “we could reach Mars in six to eight weeks instead of six to eight months.”

Read: How Long Does It Take To Get To Mars?

The key component to the UAH research is the Decade Module 2 — a massive device used by the Department of Defense for weapons testing in the 90s. Delivered last month to UAH (some assembly required) the DM2 will allow the team to test Z-pinch creation and confinement methods, and then utilize the data to hopefully get to the next step: fusion of lithium-deuterium pellets to create propulsion controlled via an electromagnetic field “nozzle”.

Although a rocket powered by Z-pinch fusion wouldn’t be used to actually leave Earth’s surface — it would run out of fuel within minutes — once in space it could be fired up to efficiently spiral out of orbit, coast at high speed and then slow down at the desired location, just like conventional rockets except… better.

“It’s equivalent to 20 percent of the world’s power output in a tiny bolt of lightning no bigger than your finger. It’s a tremendous amount of energy in a tiny period of time, just a hundred billionths of a second.”

– Dr. Jason Cassibry on the Z-pinch effect

In fact, according to a UAHuntsville news release, a pulsed fusion engine is pretty much the same thing as a regular rocket engine: a “flying tea kettle.” Cold material goes in, gets energized and hot gas pushes out. The difference is how much and what kind of cold material is used, and how forceful the push out is.

Everything else is just rocket science.

Read more on the University of Huntsville news site here and on al.com. Also, Paul Gilster at Centauri Dreams has a nice write-up about the research as well as a little history of Z-pinch fusion technology… check it out. Top image: Mars imaged with Hubble’s Wide-Field Planetary Camera 2 in March 1995.

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

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.

SLS: NASA’s Next Big Thing

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NASA has officially unveiled the plan for their next large-scale rocket: the Space Launch System, or SLS, will provide heavy-lift capabilities for cargo and spacecraft to go beyond low-Earth orbit and is proposed as a safe, sustainable and efficient way to open up the next chapter in US space exploration.

SLS is designed to carry the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Module, NASA’s next-generation human spaceflight vehicle that is specifically designed for long-duration missions. (Construction of the first space-bound MPCV began last week on September 9.)

Utilizing a modular design that can accommodate varying mission needs, SLS will also be able to provide service to the International Space Station.

“President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that’s exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow’s explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars.”

– NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

SLS will have an initial lift capacity of over 70 metric tons – about 154,000 pounds (70,000 kg). That’s three times the lift capability of the space shuttles! In the event of a Mars mission that can be upgraded to 130 metric tons – about the weight of 75 SUVs.

Artist image of SLS launch. Credit: NASA

The first developmental flight is targeted for the end of 2017.

SLS will be the first exploration-class vehicle since the giant Saturn V rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Using rocket technology developed during the shuttle era and modified for the canceled Constellation program, combined with cutting-edge manufacturing processes, SLS will expand the boundaries of human spaceflight and extend our reach into the solar system.

“This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that’s exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow’s explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars.”

Read the NASA news release here.

(And check out this “Fun Facts” sheet on SLS.)

Dragon Drop Tests and Heat1X-Tycho Brahe Set to Launch – SpacePod 2010.08.24

Home made rockets launched from home made submarines next to dragon wings floating in the ocean on your SpacePod for August 24th, 2010

Before we begin I just wanted to give a shout out to our new viewers on both Space.com and Universe Today. Hopefully you like what you’ll see and you’ll stick around for a while, check out some of our other videos and join us for our live weekly show all about space. For today though, lets start over the Pacific Ocean where SpaceX tested the Dragon’s parachute deployment system on August 12th, 2010.
Continue reading “Dragon Drop Tests and Heat1X-Tycho Brahe Set to Launch – SpacePod 2010.08.24”

After Loss of Lunar Orbiter, India Looks to Mars Mission

India Moon Mission

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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