Discovery: Mission Complete

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CAPE CANAVERAL – After logging over a year’s worth of flight time in space, the space shuttle Discovery wrapped up a historic career by safely touching down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 11:57 a.m. EDT. The shuttle landed at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility on runway 15.

Discovery’s final mission was a resupply flight to the International Space Station (ISS). The shuttle delivered the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) to the orbiting outpost. Among other things, the PMM carried the first humanoid robot in space – Robonaut-2 (R2) inside. R2 is also the first robot that the U.S. has flown to the ISS.

The crew that flew Discovery on her final mission consisted of Commander Steve Lindsey, Pilot, Eric Boe and Mission Specialists; Alvin Drew, Nicole Stott, Michael Barratt and Stephen Bowen. Bowen actually was not slated to fly this mission; he was a last-minute replacement for Tim Kopra who broke his hip in a bicycle accident in January.

The lead-up to Discovery’s final mission was one filled with technical hurdles that NASA’s engineers had to overcome before the shuttle thundered one last time to orbit. On the Nov. 5 launch attempt a leak at the Ground Umbilical Carrier Plate (GUCP) caused a scrub. Upon inspection technicians found a section of popped-up foam on the shuttle’s external tank – this led them to discovering numerous, small cracks in the aluminum body of the external tank itself.

STS-133 marks the 39th and final mission for Discovery. The orbiter will now be retired. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

When Discovery was set to launch on Feb.24, a range issue crept up at the last minute almost scrubbing the launch. It was cleared with only seconds to spare.

Discovery’s service record is a distinguished one. Whenever NASA had a critical mission to fly – Discovery got the nod. The orbiter carried Sen. Jake Garn as well as former Mercury astronaut and Senator John Glenn to orbit. It delivered the Hubble Space Telescope to space. And it returned the U.S. space program to orbit, twice, after the Challenger and Columbia accidents.

“If you think of a vehicle that’s 27 years old, you never see a vehicle that age that never comes back with no flaws, however Discovery did just that, she functioned flawlessly,” said Commander Steve Lindsey upon landing. “This is a tribute to the Kennedy Space Center team.”

Discovery sits on KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility after completing its highly-successful final mission. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

The next phase of Discovery’s career is retirement; she will now head to the Smithsonian Institute’s Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center in Washington D.C. where she will be put on display. Discovery will take the place where Discovery currently resides.

“Discovery is an amazing spacecraft and she has served her country well,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The success of this mission and those that came before it is a testament to the diligence and determination of everyone who has worked on Discovery and the Space Shuttle Program, over these many years. As we celebrate the many accomplishments of this magnificent ship, we look forward to an exciting new era of human spaceflight that lies ahead.”

There are only two missions left in the shuttle program, STS-134 onboard Endeavour which is slated to fly on Apr. 19 and STS-135 which will be flown by Atlantis on June 28.

Discovery touches down at Kennedy Space Center's runway 15, wrapping up a 27 year career. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian
A long-range shot, showing Discovery on approach to the Shuttle Landing Facility. Credit: Jason Rhian

NASA – The Frontier Is Everywhere (Videos): Readings from Carl Sagan

Check out this awesome pair of inspiring videos about NASA and Space Exploration. They are set to the ever inspiring words of Carl Sagan – reading from his book, “The Pale Blue Dot”. And these beautifully crafted videos were not created by NASA, but rather by people inspired by NASA and Carl Sagan to dream about distant frontiers even in these times of tough budgets for NASA.

The original, highly praised video – see below – was created by Director Michael Marantz, who was inspired by the words of Carl Sagan. Now a completely new version – above – by a fellow going by “damewse”, has been set to the same stirring words and music and the video has gone viral.

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“damewse” posted that he created the new video treatment because he feels NASA’s PR sucks, resulting in massive funding cuts. He pleads with NASA to use social media to relate to the public with videos like these to rekindle public interest in the space program.

Both videos are included here for all to enjoy and compare – moving and thought provoking in their own right.

“damewse” elaborated; “I got frustrated with NASA and made this video. NASA is the most fascinating, adventurous, epic institution ever devised by human beings, and their media sucks.”

“Seriously. none of their brilliant scientists appear to know how to connect with the social media crowd, which is now more important than ever. In fact, NASA is an institution whose funding directly depends on how the public views them.”

Earth: The Pale Blue Dot
The original film and comments by Director Michael Marantz

“Carl Sagan provides the epic narration to this piece. His great ability to convey such overwhelming topics in relatable ways inspired me to make this.”

The Pale Blue Dot. Most distant image of Earth, snapped by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990 at a distance of 6.1 billion kilometers. Credit: NASA

“This piece contains readings from Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”. I have edited his words to tell this short narrative.

I took the time lapse images in Mexico and Utah.

The piano is self-composed.

Everything in this video is created by myself except for the words of Carl Sagan.

I hope you enjoy this piece, it has given me hope once again.”

– Michael Marantz

…………..
Well NASA does need to do a more effective job at PR to grab the attention of the public – especially the younger generations – and explaining the agency’s exploration goals in ways that folks will find value in and support. But it’s also true that NASA has embraced many forms of social media. Take a look at almost any NASA Center or Mission homepage and you’ll see buttons for Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, flickr, blogs and more. I’ve found these sources to be invaluable, especially during beaking news events.

It hinges more I think on the quality of the presentation of the content and the organization of outstanding material at those websites. Look here for a thoughtful perspective from Spaceref Canada

The lengthy list of exciting and worthy ideas and lost opportunities for space exploration that have gone unfunded in our lifetimes, is truly sad.

Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking Lander that landed on Mars in 1976 in the search for life.

Can China enter the international space family?

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It has often been called a ‘100 billion boondoggle’ – yet it is also unquestionably one of the most successful international programs in human history. The International Space Station (ISS) is just now starting to produce some of the valuable science that was the station’s selling point from the beginning. However, this delay can be attributed to the numerous tragedies, economic woes and other issues that have arisen on a global scale through the course of the station’s construction.

The one thing that the world learned early on from the ISS experience is that space is a great forum for diplomacy. One time arch-rivals now work side by side on a daily basis.

With much of the nations of the world talking about stepped-up manned exploration efforts it would seem only natural that the successful model used on the space station be incorporated into the highly-expensive business of manned space exploration. If so, then one crucial player is being given a hard look to see if they should be included – China.

Will we one day see Chinese taikonauts working alongside U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts? Only time will tell. Photo Credit: NASA

“International partnership in space exploration has proven its worth over the last decade. It would be a positive step if the other space-faring nation of the world, China, were to join the assembled space explorers of humankind as we march outward into the solar system,” said former NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale who writes a popular blog about space matters.

China is only the third nation (behind Russia and the United States) to have a successful manned space program, having launched its first successful manned space flight in 2003. This first mission only had a single person onboard, and gave the world a new word – ‘taikonaut’ (taikong is the Chinese word for space). The country’s next mission contained two of these taikonauts and took place in 2005. The third and most current manned mission that China has launched was launched in 2008 and held a crew of three.

Yang Liwei became the first of China's Taikonaut when he rocketed into orbit in 2003. Photo Credit: Xinhua

China has steadily, but surely, built and tested capabilities essential for a robust manned space program. Considering that China very ambitious goals for space this would seem a prudent course of action. China has stated publically that they want to launch a space station and send their taikonauts to the moon – neither of which are small feats.

China currently utilizes its Shenzhou spacecraft atop the Long March 2F booster from their Jiuquan facility. However, if China wants to accomplish these goals, they will need a more powerful booster. This has been part of the reason that the U.S. has been hesitant to include China due to concerns about the use of what are known as dual-use technologies (rockets that can launch astronauts can also launch nuclear weapons).

Both China's rocket and spacecraft are derived from Soviet Soyuz designs. Photo Credit: Xinhua/Wang Jianmin

Some have raised concerns about the nation’s human rights track record. It should be noted however that Russia had similar issues before being included in the International Space Station program.

“In the early 1990’s, some at NASA thought having Russian cosmonauts on the Space Shuttle would mean giving away trade secrets to the competition,” said Pat Duggins, author of the book Trailblazing Mars. “It turned out Russian crew capsules saved the International Space Station when the Shuttles were grounded after the Columbia accident in 2003. So, never say never on China, I guess.”

Duggins is not the only space expert who feels that China would make a good companion when mankind once again ventures out past low-Earth-orbit.

“One of the findings of the Augustine Commission was that the international framework that came out of the ISS program is one of the most important. It should be used and expanded upon for use in international beyond-LEO human space exploration,” said Dr. Leroy Chiao a veteran of four launches and a member of the second Augustine Commission. “My personal belief is that countries like China, which is only the third nation able to launch astronauts, should be included. My hope is that the politics will align soon, to allow such collaboration, using the experience that the US has gained in working with Russia to bring it about.”

Not everyone is completely convinced that China will be as valuable an asset as the Russians have proven themselves to be however.

“It is an interesting scenario with respect to the Chinese participation in an international effort in space. The U.S. has made some tremendous strides in terms of historical efforts to bridge the gap with the Russians and the results have been superb,” said Robert Springer a two-time space shuttle veteran. “The work that has resulted in the successful completion of the International Space Station is an outstanding testimony to what can be done when political differences are set aside in the interest of International cooperation. So, there is a good model of how to proceed, driven somewhat by economic realities as well as politics. I am not convinced that the economic and political scenario bodes well for similar results with the Chinese. It is a worthwhile goal to pursue, but I am personally not convinced that a similar outcome will be the result, at least not in the current environment.”

China's journey into space has just begun, but it remains to be seen if they will be going it alone or as part of a partnership. Photo Credit: Xinhua

Twas the Shuttles last Christmas

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To mark the occasion of the Shuttle’s last Christmas, space shuttle worker Terry Sibile drafted a touching poem titled; “T’was the Shuttle’s Last Christmas”.

For your enjoyment Terry’s poem is reprinted below; as it appeared at Florida Today. The poem initially was circulated via email at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and other NASA sites across the US.

According to this article at Florida Today, Terry is a member of the engineering team dealing with cranes, platforms and doors which abound at the space center.

Only 2 or 3 flights remain before the shuttle is retired – at the peak of its performance – probably around mid-2011. NASA is still evaluating whether the budget will support flying the STS-135 mission to the International Space Station.

So it’s unlikely the shuttles will see another Christmas. Sibile’s poem thus marks another installment in the string of sad and bittersweet “lasts” for the shuttle program – “Our spirits were low … and soon we’d all go.”

The Space Shuttle Launch team at KSC recently created tribute displays to honor the achievements of all 5 Space Shuttle Orbiters and all the NASA and contractor workers involved. See photo above. Sibile’s poetry poignantly puts these displays into words.

‘Twas the Shuttle’s last Christmas by Terry Sibile

‘Twas the Shuttle’s last Christmas
and our spirits were low,
For the program was ending
and soon we’d all go.

We’d processed the Shuttles
with infinite care
And followed each mission
as if we were there.

We made every effort
to achieve all our goals;
We offered our talents,
our hearts and our souls.

Our work was much more
than a meager career;
‘Twas an honor and privilege
beyond all compare.

As this marvel of science
was applauded worldwide,
We looked on each Shuttle
with unfettered pride:

Columbia, Challenger,
Discovery, and then
Atlantis, Endeavour
all ferried brave men

And women to realms
past the confines of Earth,
Uncovering knowledge
of infinite worth.

We rejoiced with each mission’s
success, and we grieved
For the losses too painful
for us to conceive.

And over the years,
something wondrous took place:
We became kindred spirits,
united by Space.

And so, as we part,
I will bear a great loss.
And hope in the future
our paths again cross.

But until then, my friend,
this wish I confide:
Happy Christmas to all
— we had a great ride!

————————————-
Check out this 360 degree panoramic view from inside Firing Room 4 showing all five Shuttle tribute displays; recorded during my visit with Space Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach. Leinbach led the effort to create the tribute displays. Courtesy of Nasatech.net

Ten Years Of the ISS in Pictures

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Ten years ago, the first Expedition crew arrived at the International Space Station. Here’s a look back in time at how the station has changed and grown, and some of the people who were there to make it happen.

And if you’re really feeling the love for the ISS today, check out our 2008 article, “I Heart the ISS; Ten Reasons to Love the International Space Station.”


The configuration of the ISS when the first expedition crew arrived on Nov. 2, 2000. Credit: NASA

Expedition Two crewmembers Yury Usachev (left), mission commander, Jim Voss, flight engineer, and Susan Helms, flight engineer, share a dessert in the Zvezda Service Module. Credit: NASA
This image was taken on April 21, 2001 during Expedition 2; the first large solar arrays were added during the STS-100 space shuttle mission. Credit: NASA
The Expedition Five crewmembers in the Destiny laboratory on the ISS. From the left are cosmonaut Valery Korzun, mission commander; astronaut Peggy A. Whitson, who became the ISS’s first science officer, and cosmonaut Sergei Treschev. Credit: NASA
The Microgravity Science Glovebox was added to the Destiny lab on the ISS during Expedition 5. Credit: NASA
The Expedition Six crew pose for a crew photo in the Zarya module on the ISS; Don Pettit (front), science officer; cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin (left back), flight engineer; and astronaut Ken Bowersox, mission commander. Credit: NASA
During Expedition 6, the space shuttle Columbia accident occurred, and the shuttle program was on hold. ISS astronauts Don Pettit (left) and Ken Bowersox had to do a variety of maintenance tasks outside the ISS that normally visiting shuttle crews would have taken care. Credit: NASA.
It was rather lonely times for awhile on the ISS -- with no space shuttles flying, only two crewmembers were able to be on board the ISS. Here are Expedition 7's Yuri Malenchenko and Ed Lu. Credit: NASA
The Russian Soyuz vehicle serves as transportation and rescue vehicle for the ISS. Credit: NASA
New Crew member? No, this is the European Matroshka-R Phantom experiment, which operated during Expedition 12 in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station. Matroshka, the name for the traditional Russian set of nestling dolls, is an antroph-amorphous model of a human torso designed for radiation studies. Credit: NASA
Stuff happens it space. During a spacewalk, Expedition 16 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin noticed damage to a multi-layer insulation (MLI) protective blanket on the Zarya module. The damage, he noted, was apparently from a micrometeoroid impact. The date the damage occurred is unknown but has had no impact to vehicle operations. Credit: NASA
Shuttles returned to flight in July of 2005, and this is how the ISS looked when space shuttle Discovery visited, the first shuttle visit in over 2 years. Credit: NASA
The ISS as it looked in June of 2007, during the STS-117 mission. Credit: NASA
The backbone of the ISS is the huge truss, brought up to the ISS in smaller segments, which are still huge by themselves. Dave Williams, STS-118 mission specialist from Canada works outside the ISS, helping to attach the Starboard 5 (S5) segment, and works on the forward heat-rejecting radiator from the station's Port 6 (P6) truss. Credit: NASA
A look inside the Harmony node that was brought to the ISS in on the STS-120 mission in 2007. Credit: NAS
Sunita Williams, Expedition 15 flight engineer, works on a science experiment in April of 2007. Credit: NASA
Backdropped by the thin line of Earth's atmosphere and the blackness of space, a portion of the International Space Station is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 20 crew member aboard the station. in May 2009. Credit: NASA
A torn solar array panel in the ISS, which was installed during the STS-120 mission. See below for the repair job. Credit: NASA
The repaired solar array, fixed by STS-120 astronauts. Credit: NASA
European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Hans Schlegel, STS-122 mission specialist, works on the new Columbus laboratory that was installed in February 2008. Credit: NASA
Astronauts work on adding the Japanese logistics module-pressurized section in March of 2008 during the STS-123 mission. Credit: NASA
Dextre, a large robotic manipulator to help with outside maintenence of the ISS was added in October of 2007. Credit: NASA
A motley-looking crew of the Expedition 17 and 18 crewmembers in the Harmony node in Oct. 2008. Credit: NASA
Here's how the ISS looked durng the STS-128 mission in September of 2009. Credit: NASA
During the STS-130 mission in Feb. 2010, the Cupola and Tranquility Node were added. The Cupola provides unprecidented views of Earth and space from the ISS. Credit: NASA
How the ISS looked during the STS-130 mission in February 2010. Credit: NASA
The Russian Mini Research Module was added in May of 2010 on STS-132. Credit: NASA
NASA astronauts Shannon Walker (left), Expedition 24/25 flight engineer; Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Expedition 23/24 flight engineer; and Doug Wheelock, Expedition 24 flight engineer and Expedition 25 commander, pose for photo in the Poisk Mini-Research Module 2 (MRM2) of the International Space Station.
How the ISS looks today (as of this writing), and as it looked following the STS-132 mission in May of 2010. Credit: NASA

For a complete list of pictures of each of the ISS Expedition crews, see NASA’s gallery which shows all those who have served on the space station over the past 10 years.

10 Years of the ISS: First Commander Reflects on Anniversary

Ten years ago today US astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko arrived at the fledgling International Space Station, after launching in a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on October 31, 2000. This began a decade of continuous human habituation on board the station. The station’s first commander reflects on his mission and the past 10 years.

Could a Human Mars Mission Be Funded Commercially?

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What will it take to actually get humans to Mars? The best answer is probably money. The right amount of cold, hard cash will certainly solve a lot of problems and eliminate hurdles in sending a human mission to the Red Planet. But cash-strapped federal space agencies aren’t currently in the position to be able to direct a mission to another world – at least in the near term – and seemingly, a trip to Mars is always 20-30 years off into the future. But how about a commercially funded effort?

At first glance, a paper published recently in the somewhat dubious Journal of Cosmology appears to have some merits on using an independent corporation to administer and supervise a marketing campaign – similar to what sports teams do to sell merchandise, gain sponsors, garner broadcasting rights and arrange licensing initiatives. The paper’s author, a psychologist named Dr. Rhawn Joseph, says that going to Mars and establishing a colony would likely cost $150 billion dollars over 10 years, and he lays out a plan for making money for a sustained Mars mission through the sale of merchandise, naming rights and even creating a reality TV show and selling property rights on Mars.

Could such a scheme work?

Not according to former NASA engineer Jim McLane, who has a fairly unique scheme of his own to get humans to Mars: a one-way, one person mission.

For years, McLane has been a proponent of getting humans to Mars as quickly as possible, and his plans for a one-way mission are outlined in a very popular article Universe Today published in 2008. So, what does he think of a commercially funded effort?

Artists impression of a future human mission to Mars. Credit: NASA

“I am a vocal proponent of an early settlement on Mars,” McLane replied to a query from UT, “ So I should have welcomed Dr. Joseph’s proposal to establish a colony in 10 years with private funds and clever marketing. Regrettably, after reading the details of his scheme I believe the good Doctor should stick to peddling his patented herbal sexual dysfunction treatment and refrain from speculating about technologically intensive endeavors like a trip to Mars.”

For starters, McLane wonders about the costs that Joseph proposes. “It’s questionable,” he said. “One cannot propose a cost without first devising a technical approach and he has not done that. He justifies the large investment by alleging that there will be significant financial returns, for example the investors might be able to claim the mineral wealth of the entire planet. However owning such an asset is of dubious value since there is no way to send anything valuable back to Earth.”

Unlike ancient Spanish treasure fleets loaded with silver that sailed every year from the New World, McLane said, nothing on planet Mars will ever be worth the expense of shipping it home. Plus, selling real estate on Mars might not even be a viable option. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits governments from making extraterrestrial property rights claims, and even though some especially ambitious entrepreneurs have tried selling real estate on the Moon and Mars, ownership of extraterrestrial real estate is not recognized by any authority. According to current space law, any “deed” or claim on another extraterrestrial body has no legal standing.

McLane was also not impressed with Joseph’s statement about the wastefulness of spending on the US military as a justification for spending money on a Mars mission. “It is not as if one program could be substituted for the other,” said McLane. “But, substitution is not what Dr. Joseph proposes. He feels inclined to speculate on the wastefulness of current wars even though this is an essay on Space.”

Some of the ideas Joseph outlined for marketing does have some validity, McLane said. “Long ago NASA should have realized that the image they cultivate of nerdy, ethically and sexually diverse astronauts does not inspire the tax payer nearly as much as the early astronauts who we expected to be risk taking, hell raising test pilots,” he said.

In respect to finances, McLane said he agrees with Joseph that there is a place for private capital, but not in regards to the venture capital proposal.

“Private money could jump start a manned Mars mission,” McLane said, “but persuading billionaires to invest based on some speculative financial return is doomed to fail. I believe rich folks might be willing to help pay to put a human on Mars, but the motivations would be philanthropy and patriotism, not financial gain. Several wealthy citizens might contribute seed money (say a quarter billion dollars or so) to finance a detailed study of the design options for a one way human mission – a concept that thus far NASA refuses to consider. Such a study would reveal the technical practicality of the one-way mission and the relative cheapness of the approach. The study would probably show that a human presence on Mars would cost little more than a human moon base assuming the same 10 year time span for accomplishing both programs.”

Dr. Joseph concludes his paper by asserting that several foreign countries “are already planning on making it to Mars in the next two decades.” McLane said this seems highly improbable since the funds spent today by these nations on manned spaceflight are a tiny fraction of what the US currently spends.

Artist concept of a future human Mars mission. Credit: NASA

While Joseph – and seemingly the current President and NASA leaders favor an international effort to get to Mars, McLane believes this is short-sighted for two reasons.

One, there would be enormous technological returns from a human Mars landing that would greatly stimulate business and the economy. “Why should the US share these large returns with foreign countries,” McLane asked? And second, an all American effort could potentially take advantage of classified US military technology.

McLane did say previously, however, that the world would be excited and unified by a mission to Mars. “The enthusiasm would be the greatest effect of a program that places a man on Mars, over and above anything else, whether it makes jobs, or stimulates the economy, or creates technology spinoffs. We’re all humans and the idea of sending one of our kind on a trip like that would be a wonderful adventure for the entire world. The whole world would get behind it.”

McLane has written a recent article in The Space Review that Mars is the key to NASA’s future.

Fleet of Solar Sail Spacecraft Envisioned for Future Data Gathering Missions

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Future missions to explore the outer planets could employ fleets of ‘data-clippers’, maneuverable spacecraft equipped with solar sails, to ship vast quantities of scientific data back to Earth. According to Joel Poncy of satellite developer Thales Alenia Space, the technology could be ready in time to support upcoming missions to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

“Space-rated flash memories will soon be able to store the huge quantities of data needed for the global mapping of planetary bodies in high resolution.” said Poncy. “But a full high-res map of, say, Europa or Titan, would take several decades to download from a traditional orbiter, even using very large antennae. Downloading data is the major design driver for interplanetary missions. We think that data clippers would be a very efficient way of overcoming this bottleneck.”

Poncy and his team have carried out a preliminary assessment for a data clipper mission. Their concept is for a clipper to fly close to a planetary orbiter, upload its data and fly by Earth, at which point terabytes of data could be downloaded to the ground station. A fleet of data clippers cruising around the Solar System could provide support for an entire suite of planetary missions.

“We have looked at the challenges of a data clipper mission and we think that it could be ready for a launch in the late 2020s. This means that the technology should be included now in the roadmap for future missions,” said Poncy.

Spurred by the success of the Japanese Space Agency’s current solar sail mission, IKAROS, Poncy’s team have assessed the communications systems and tracking devices that a data clipper would need, as well as the flyby conditions and pointing accuracy required for the massive data transfers. Recent advances in technology mean that spacecraft propelled by solar sails, which use radiation pressure from photons emitted by the Sun, or electric sails, which harness the momentum of the solar wind, can now be envisaged for mid-term missions.

“Using the Sun as a propulsion source has the considerable advantage of requiring no propellant on board. As long as the hardware doesn’t age too much and the spacecraft is maneuverable, the duration of the mission can be very long. The use of data clippers could lead to a valuable downsizing of exploration missions and lower ground operation costs – combined with a huge science return. The orbiting spacecraft would still download some samples of their data directly to Earth to enable real-time discoveries and interactive mission operations. But the bulk of the data is less urgent and is often processed by scientists much later. Data clippers could provide an economy delivery service from the outer Solar System, over and over again,” said Poncy.

Poncy will be presenting an assessment of data clippers at the European Planetary Science Congress in Rome on Monday September, 20, 2010.

Source: European Planetary Science Congress

Needed: Plutonium-238

Space Probes

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Sometimes people ask what they, as a regular citizen can do to help NASA. Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society Blog posted this today, and this is definitely something to write to members of Congress about. NASA is running out of plutonium-238, which is used to power deep space probes, but it’s unclear whether Congress will provide the $30 million that has been requested for the Department of Energy to start new production.

Plutonium-238 has powered dozens of spacecraft, including the Voyager probes, the Galileo mission to Jupiter, and the Cassini spacecraft that is currently sending back such amazing images of Saturn’s rings and moons. Because of spacecraft powered by plutonium-238, we now know — among other things — that there are volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io and geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Plutonium-238 was a by-product of Cold War activities, and the U.S. has not made any new supplies since the 1980s. Since 1993, all of the plutonium-238 the US has used in space probes has been purchased from Russia. It’s not the same as plutonium-239, which is used in nuclear weapons; a small marshmallow-sized pellet of plutonium-238 gives off heat, which is used to power spacecraft that can’t rely solely on energy from solar panels. Without this energy source, future missions could be canceled.

Emily posted this letter from the chair of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society Candy Hansen:

Members of the DPS Federal Relations Subcommittee and the DPS committee carried out our annual “Hill” visits May 13 to key members of Congress. We had two messages – restart domestic production of plutonium-238, and our concerns about R&A carry-over language. With regards to the production of plutonium-238, we are not out of the woods. We still need to convince the members of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water that this is a critical need right now – that NASA is already curtailing missions to the outer solar system, and anywhere else plutonium-238 is required (the New Frontiers 3 Announcement of Opportunity ruled out missions which require plutonium-238).

In particular we need constituents of the following states to write letters:

Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development:
Dorgan (ND)
Byrd (WV)
Feinstein (CA)
Bennett (UT)
Hutchison (TX)
Murray (WA)
Bond (MO)
Alexander (TN)
Shelby (AL)

Also, Johnson (SD), Cochran (MS), Harkin (IA), Landrieu (LA), Lautenberg (NJ), McConnell (KY), Reed (RI), Tester (MT), Voinovich (OH).

If these are your representatives we need you to write:

House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development:
Visclosky (IN)
Frelinghuysen (NJ)
Edwards (MD)
Pastor (AZ)
Davis (TN)

Or you live in these districts: IN-01, TX-17, AR-01, PA-02, NY-02, OH-17, MA-01, TN-04, CO-03, NJ-11, TN-03, ID-02, MT, CA-44 and LA-05.

We have a handout that you may wish to send with your letter.

For more background and a letter template, see this page.

Thanks for your efforts!

Candy Hansen

Japan Shoots for Robotic Moon Base by 2020

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These ARE the droids we’ve been looking for. The Japanese space agency, JAXA, has plans to build a base on the Moon by 2020. Not for humans, but for robots, and built by robots, too. A panel authorized by Japan’s prime minister has drawn up preliminary plans of how humanoid and rover robots will begin surveying the moon by 2015, and then begin construction of a base near the south pole of the moon. The robots and the base will run on solar power, with total costs about $2.2 billion USD, according to the panel chaired by Waseda University President Katsuhiko Shirai.

Moon base robot. Credit: JAXA

Some of the planned droids weigh about 300 kg (660 pounds) and move on tank-like treads. Reportedly, they will be able to operate within a 100 km (60 mile) radius of the base. They’ll be equipped with solar panels, seismographs to investigate the moon’s inner structure, high-def cameras, and arms to gather rock samples, which will be returned to Earth via a sample return rocket.

The exact location for the base will be chosen from high-resolution images returned by Japan’s Kaguya orbiter, which has provided stunning images of the Moon’s surface.

Previously, JAXA had set a goal of constructing a manned lunar base starting in about 2030, and apparently, the robotic base would be a precursor. That plan calls for astronauts to visit the Moon by around 2020 which is about the same timetable as the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is hoping to have a manned mission to the Moon. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has said they would like to have a manned lunar mission in 2030. NASA? Not sure yet. The Constellation program to return to the Moon has seemingly been axed, but it’s not going down without a fight from members of Congress and others. But surely, even if NASA decides an asteroid or Mars is their destination of choice, they would have to start by practicing on the Moon.

Let’s all work together on this and perhaps returning to the Moon will actually happen.

Source: NODE via PopSci