News from Space: Orion Spacecraft Completed

orion_arrays1NASA’s return to manned spaceflight took a few steps forward this month with the completion of the Orion crew capsule. As the module that will hopefully bring astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars, the capsule rolled out of its assembly facility at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Thursday, Sept. 11. This was the first step on its nearly two month journey to the launch pad and planned blastoff this coming December.

Orion’s assembly was just completed this past weekend by technicians and engineers from prime contractor Lockheed Martin inside the agency’s Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O & C) Facility. And with the installation of the world’s largest heat shield and the inert service module, all that remains is fueling and the attachment of its launch abort system before it will installed atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket.

Orion-at-KSC_Ken-KremerThe unmanned test flight – Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) – is slated to blast off on December 2014, and will send the capsule into space for the first time. This will be NASA’s first chance to observe how well the Orion capsule works in space before it’s sent on its first mission on the Space Launch System (SLS), which is currently under development by NASA and is scheduled to fly no later than 2018.

The Orion is NASA’s first manned spacecraft project to reach test-flight status since the Space Shuttle first flew in the 1980s. It is designed to carry up to six astronauts on deep space missions to Mars and asteroids, either on its own or using a habitat module for missions longer than 21 days. The development process has been a long time in the making, and had more than its share of bumps along the way.

Orion-at-KSC_Ken-Kremer1As Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager, explained:

Nothing about building the first of a brand new space transportation system is easy. But the crew module is undoubtedly the most complex component that will fly in December. The pressure vessel, the heat shield, parachute system, avionics — piecing all of that together into a working spacecraft is an accomplishment. Seeing it fly in three months is going to be amazing.

In addition to going to the Moon and Mars, the Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts on voyages venturing father into deep space than ever before. This will include going to the Asteroid Belt, to Europa (to see if there’s any signs of life there), and even beyond – most likely to Enceladus, Titan, the larger moons of Uranus, and all the other wondrous places in the Solar System.

oriontestflightThe two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 5,800 km (3,600 miles), about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years. It will be an historic occasion, and constitute an important step in what is sure to be known as the Second Space Age.

And be sure to watch this time-lapse video of the Orion Capsule as it is released from the Kennedy Space Center to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility in preparation for its first flight:


Sources:
gizmag.com, universetoday.com

News from Space: Space Launch Systems Good to Go!

SLS_goNASA’s Space Launch System, the US’s first exploration-class spacecraft since the Space Shuttle, is a central component in the agency’s plan to restore its ability to independently launch missions into space. An after a thorough review of cost and engineering issues, NASA managers formally approved the mammoth rocket past the whiteboard formulation stage and moved it into full-scale development.

As the world’s most powerful rocket ever built and is intended to take astronauts farther beyond Earth into deep space than ever before possible. This includes the first-ever manned mission to Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and perhaps other planets and moons throughout the Solar System as well. The first SLS mission should lift off no later than 2018, sending the Orion capsule around the Moon, with asteroid and Mars-bound missions following after 2030 or 2032.

Space_Shuttle_Atlantis_launchNASA began the SLS’s design process back in 2011. Back then, the stated goal was to try and re-use as many Space Shuttle components and get back into deep space as quickly and as cost effectively as possible. But now that the formulation stage has been completed, and focus has shifted to actually developing and fabricating the launch system’s millions of constituent components, what kind of missions the SLS will be capable of has become much clearer.

At a press briefing that took place at their Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, Aug. 27th, NASA officials shared  details about the maiden test launch. Known as EM-1, the launch is targeted for November 2018 and will involve the SLS  carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a journey lasting roughly three weeks that will take it beyond the Moon to a distant retrograde orbit.

Orion_with_ATV_SMPreviously NASA had been targeting Dec. 2017 for the inaugural launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But the new Nov. 2018 target date has resulted from the rigorous assessment of the technical, cost and scheduling issues. The decision to move forward with the SLS comes after a wide ranging review of the technical risks, costs, schedules and timing known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C).

As Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process, said at the briefing:

After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment. Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program. We are making excellent progress on SLS designed for missions beyond low Earth orbit. We owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right.

spaceX-falcon9The SLS involved in the test flight will be configured to its 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version. By comparison, the Saturn V — which took NASA astronauts to the Moon — had a max Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) payload capacity of 118 metric tons, but it has long since been retired. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which is a much smaller and cheaper rocket than the SLS, will be able to put 55 metric tons into LEO.

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, there aren’t really any heavy lift launchers in operation. Ariane 5, produced by commercial spacecraft manufacturer Arianespace, can only do 21 metric tons to LEO, while the Delta IV (United Launch Alliance) can do 29 metric tons to LEO. In short, NASA’s Space Launch System should be by far the most powerful operational rocket when it arrives in 2017-2018.

CST_Main_Header2-process-sc938x350-t1386173951SpaceX could decide to scale-up the Falcon Heavy, but the rocket’s main purpose is to compete with United Launch Alliance and Arianespace, which currently own the incredibly lucrative heavy lift market. A payload capacity of 55 tons is more than enough for that purpose. A capacity of 150 tons is only for rockets that are intended to aim at targets that are much farther than geostationary orbit — such as the Moon, Mars or Europa.

The SLS’s primary payload will be the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), though it will undoubtedly be used to send other large spacecraft into deep space. The Orion capsule is what NASA will use to land astronauts on the Moon, captured asteroids, Mars, and any other manned missions throughout the Solar System. The first manned Orion launch, to a captured asteroid in lunar orbit, is scheduled to occur in 2021.

mars_roverCombined with SpaceX’s crewed Dragon spacecraft, Boeing’s CST-100, and a slew of crowd-funded projects to place boots on Mars and Europa in the next few decades, things are looking up for human space exploration!

Source: universetoday.com, extremetech.com

News From Space: 200 km Water Jets on Europa

europa-landerAs the prime candidate for extra-terrestrial life, the Jovian moon of Europa has been the subject of much speculation and interest over years. And while our understanding of the surface has improved – thanks to observations made by several space probes and the Hubble space telescope – what lies beneath remains a mystery. Luckily, Europa may yet provide Earth scientists with a chance to look at its interior.

Earlier this month, data collected from the Hubble space telescope suggested that enormous jets of water more than 200 kilometers tall may be spurting intermittently from the moon’s surface. The findings, presented last week to the American Geophysical Union, await independent confirmation. But if the jets are real, the frozen world would join the tiny number of others known to have active jets, including Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Neptune’s moon Triton.

europa-lander-2What’s more, should these newly observed water plumes be tapping into some Europan sea, they could be bringing material to the surface that would otherwise stay hidden. Follow-up observations from Earth or with probes around Europa could sample the fountains, hunting for organic material and perhaps finding the evidence need to prove that living organisms exist beyond Earth.

Scientists spotted the plumes thanks to ultraviolet images taken by Hubble in December 2012. The research team, which hails from the Southwest Research Institute in Texas, then published their research in Science magazine. In the paper, astronomer and co-author Lorenz Roth explained their findings:

We found that there’s one blob of emission at Europa’s south pole. It was always there over the 7 hours we observed and always at the same location.

Previous observations from NASA’s Galileo mission, which visited the Jupiter system in the 1990s and early 2000s, suggest that Europa’s south pole is full of ridges and cracks quite similar to features called tiger stripes on Enceladus that spew water.

europa_chaosterrainLorenz and his team looked back through previous Hubble data to see if the plumes could have been spotted earlier but saw nothing, suggesting that they are likely transient. At the time, Europa was at its farthest from Jupiter, which could explain why the jets appeared only then. Researchers recently determined that Enceladus’ plumes are weakest when the moon is closest to Saturn, likely because the ringed planet’s gravity squeezes the tiger stripes shut.

Astronomer Kurt Retherford, also of SwRI and another co-author, claimed that the case of Enceladus helped them to make a connection with what they were observing:

We actually saw this press release on Enceladus. And we thought, ‘Oh my god! This is the explanation’” for why Europa’s plumes might only appear when it’s far from Jupiter.

In the past, scientists have looked for evidence of jets coming from Europa’s surface. When the Voyager probes flew by in the 70s, one image showed a fuzzy spot that some thought to be a plume, though most considered it an artifact of imaging. Galileo also saw a row of dark spots on a ridge of Europa which looked similar to spots seen on planet Earth before an eruption begins.

europaBecause of these previous false positives though, scientists are likely to be cautious when interpreting these newest results. But even with these reservations, Robert Pappalardo – who leads the planning team for the Europa Clipper Pre-Project (a proposed mission to Europa) – said that he’s already discussing with other scientists how these new results should affect their study priorities.

For instance, some future orbiter headed to Europa could carry detectors specifically designed to search for heavy organic molecules that could be indicative of life in the subsurface. When it passed over the geyser’s spray, it would be bathed in material from the moon’s interior, giving scientists a window into Europa’s ocean. Pappalardo also hopes that the finding will help push Europa to a place of high priority in NASA’s exploration agenda.

Due to budget constraints, a manned mission is not yet feasible, but NASA has indicated that it would be willing to send a robot lander there in the near future. In addition, recent computer models provided from the University of Texas showed that the ice is likely to be thinnest at the equator. Between the possibility that the oceans might be most accessible in this region, and the likelihood that some of that water escapes into space, unlocking the mysteries of the Jovian satellite might be easier than previously thought.

europa_gieserSources: wired.com, science.jpl.nasa.gov

News From Space: Enceladus, the Jet-Powered Moon

enceladusThe Cassini Space Probe is at it again, providing the people of Earth with rare glimpses of Saturn and its moons. And with this latest picturesque capture, revealed by NASA, the ESA and ASI back in April, we got to see the moon of Enceladus as it sprayed icy vapor off into space. For some time, scientists have known about the large collection of geysers located at the moon’s south pole. But thanks to Cassini, this was the first time that it was caught (beautifully) on film.

First discovered by Cassini in 2005, scientists have been trying to learn more about how these plumes of water behave, what they are made of and – most importantly – where they are coming from. The working theory is that Enceladus has a liquid subsurface ocean, and pressure from the rock and ice layers above combined with heat from within force the water up through surface cracks near the moon’s south pole.

Saturn_with_aurorasWhen this water reaches the surface it instantly freezes, sending plumes of water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds hundreds of kilometers out into space. Cassini has flown through the spray several times now, and instruments have detected that aside from water and organic material, there is salt in the icy particles.

Facing_Enceladus_largeTests run on samples that were captured indicate that the salinity is the same as that of Earth’s oceans. These findings, combined with the presence of organic compounds, indicate that Enceladus may be one of the best candidates in the Solar System for finding life.

Much like Europa, the life would be contained within the planet’s outer crust. But as we all know, life comes in many, many forms. Not all of it needs to be surface-dweling in nature, and an atmosphere need not exist either. Granted, these are essential for life to thrive, but not necessarily exist.

What’s more, this could come in handy if manned missions to Cassini ever do take place. Water is key to making hydrogen fuel, and could come in might handy if ever people set down and feel the need to terraform the place. Of course, they might want to make sure they aren’t depriving subterranean organisms of their livelihood first. Don’t want another Avatar situation on our hands!

Source: universetoday.com

NASA’s Next Mission to the Moon

moonThe buzz about NASA is that the human race is once again going to the moon, and planning to stay there! According to space policy expert John Logsdon, there are plans to establish a manned base on the dark side of the moon under the Obama administration. He further indicated that with the election pending, this news has been kept under wraps. But with Obama now secure in a second term, it is expected that there will be an announcement soon.

“NASA has been evolving its thinking, and its latest charts have inserted a new element of cislunar/lunar gateway/Earth-moon L2 sort of stuff into the plan,” said Logsdon in a recent interview with SPACE.com. “They’ve been holding off announcing that until after the election, noting that NASA’s mission, direction, and budget could have been revised under a Romney administration.”

For those who have been following the Obama administration’s plans for space, this should not come as a surprise. In 2010, the president signed the NASA 2010 Authorization Act into law, a bill which freed up $60 billion for NASA through 2013. This move was intended to reignite space exploration at a time when the US found itself lagging behind Russia, China, the European Union and India in terms of bold new space projects.

These project include a planned asteroid visit by 2025 and a manned mission to Mars in 2030. A manned outpost at the Earth-moon L2 “gateway” (shown in the diagram below) could serve as an important stepping stone to the outer solar system. But right now, NASA’s eyes are firmly fixed on Mars itself, since a manned mission is the next logical step in their research of the Red Planet.

NASA_moon“There are many options – and many routes – being discussed on our way to the Red Planet. In addition to the moon and an asteroid, other options may be considered as we look for ways to buy down risk – and make it easier – to get to Mars.” At a conference held this past September, NASA deputy chief Lori Garver went even further to outline NASA’s goals for the coming years:

“We just recently delivered a comprehensive report to Congress outlining our destinations which makes clear that SLS  – NASA’s new heavy-lift “Space Launch System” – will go way beyond low-Earth orbit to explore the expansive space around the Earth-moon system, near-Earth asteroids, the moon, and ultimately, Mars. Let me say that again, we’re going back to the moon, attempting a first-ever mission to send humans to an asteroid and actively developing a plan to take Americans to Mars.”

Suffice it to say, NASA is happy the election turned out the way it did. With their budget secure, the course of future space exploration has been set and remains in effect. Who’s to say where it will take us beyond Mars? To the Jovian satellites of Europa, Ganymede and Io? The Saturnalian moons of Titan, Rhea, Dione and Enceladus? I call Gliese 581 after that. I want to know for sure if the fourth planet (the setting of our story Yuva) is inhabitable or not already!

These are exciting times we live in, aren’t they?

Source: IO9, Space.com

Three Scenarios for Life on Mars

As usual, the Red Planet is capturing the imagination of scientists and people all over the world, thanks in no small part to ongoing discoveries made by Curiosity and her predecessors. At the center of all the speculation is the big question: was there ever life on Mars? Recently, Curiosity Scientist Ashwin Vasavada sat down with the good folks from thinkrtv to discuss that questions and present some viable scenarios as to what that life might have looked like.

According to thinkrtv, this video is the first installment in an ongoing series called EPIPHANY which “invites impassioned thought leaders across all disciplines to reveal the innovative, the improbable, and the unexpected of their worlds.” Based on that description, I’m thinking they will be moving onto places like Europa, Titan, Dione and Enceladus next, all moons in our Solar System which may boast or be capable of supporting life.

Cool stuff, and some rather intriguing ideas presented here. Click on the video below or follow the link to see Vasavada’s interview:

Source: thinkrtv

The News From Saturn

Saturn has certainly been seen in the news a lot as of late. And you have the Cassini space probe, which was deployed from Earth back in 1997, to thank for all of that. Having completed the first leg of its mission back in 2008, its mission was extended to 2010, when most of the new photos and startling discoveries that are now being announced were made. Now, the healthy spacecraft is seeking to make exciting new discoveries in a second extended mission called the Cassini Solstice Mission.

But alas, the news! First, there was the announcement back in February that Saturn’s two largest moons – Titan and Rhea – were captured together in the same photo by the Cassini space probe. Considering that Saturn has 66 moons and Cassini was flying past at the time, this was no small accomplishment! What’s more, Titan’s atmosphere, which is fully developed (the only Saturnine moon to have this) was captured perfectly the shot.

But the news didn’t stop there. Shortly thereafter, in March to be specific, a report published in the Geophysical Research Letters announced that a thin layer of oxygen was discovered around Saturn’s moon of Dione. Once again, this discovery was made by the Cassini space probe as it passed by this other satellite of Saturn’s two years ago. This finding is proving to be quite the exciting one within the astronomical community.

Shortly after that, NASA announced that the moon of Enceladus did indeed have its own ocean. Named the Enceladan Ocean, this natural body of water has been known about for some time, but what is now known is the water contains carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, potassium salts and other organic materials. On top of that, it is now understood that it is situated above some volcanic jets, which means the water is most likely warm. Warm water, combined with organic minerals, makes the Enceladan Ocean a good candidate for life!

And then, in late July, images released by NASA showed that Cassini also caught a glimpse of a thunderstorm happening on Saturn’s surface. As all residents of Earth will surely agree, a thunderstorm is an impressive sight to behold. Especially when it’s seen happening on another planet! Apparently, what made this sighting most impressive was that it was visible on Saturn’s day side – aka. in broad daylight – from a range of 4.5 million km (2 million miles). That’s one humungous light show!

And less than a week ago, more information emerged as a result of the Cassini space probe, this time in relation to Saturn’s moon of Iapetus. After getting a good glimpse of the moon, scientists at NASA have determined that it is home to the largest ice avalanches in the Solar System, and is rivaled only by Mars. Take that Mount Everest! You too Olympus Mons!

Already, scientists had Iapetus pegged as the most intriguing moon in the Solar System. For starters, it has a Ying-Yang color pattern, looks like an inverted Death Star (check that image, no Photoshopping!), and has a long ridge running almost perfectly along Iapetus’ equator, a feature which earned it the nickname “the walnut moon”. I guess it wasn’t happy with just that, it also wanted to be the most dangerous place to downhill ski!

And you thought Jupiter did some badass things. Well, it does. But judging from all these findings, Saturn is going to be a pretty happening place someday. I can envision settlements on Titan, skiing on Iapetus, and terraforming on Dione. And for those who like to sight-see, there will be shuttle services that take you to the dark side of Saturn to witness the light show from space. Ooooh, I got goose bumps!

Via: BBC, IO9, Nature Geoscience, CICOPS, Time Science, and NASA