News From Space: Rosetta Starts, Orion in the Wings

 Quick Note: This is my 1700th post!
Yaaaaaay, happy dance!

Rosetta_Artist_Impression_Far_625x469Space exploration is a booming industry these days. Between NASA, the ESA, Roscosmos, the CSA, and the federal space agencies of India and China, there’s just no shortage of exciting missions aimed at improving our understanding of our Solar System or the universe at large. In recent months, two such missions have been making the news; one of which (led by the ESA) is now underway, while the other (belonging to NASA) is fast-approaching.

In the first instance, we have the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, which is currently on its way to rendezvous with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at the edge of our Solar System. After awaking from a 957 day hibernation back in January, it has just conducted its first instruments observations. Included in these instruments are three NASA science packages, all of which have started sending science data back to Earth.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_cometSince leaving Earth in March 2004, the Rosetta spacecraft has traveled more than 6 billion km (3.7 billion miles) in an attempt to be the first spacecraft to successfully rendezvous with a comet. It is presently nearing the main asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars – some 500,000 km (300,000 miles) from its destination. And until August, it will executing a series of 10 orbit correction maneuvers to line it self up to meet with 67P, which will take place on August 6th.

Rosetta will then continue to follow the comet around the Sun as it moves back out toward the orbit of Jupiter. By November of 2014, Rosetta’s mission will then to launch its Philae space probe to the comet, which will provide the first analysis of a comet’s composition by drilling directly into the surface. This will provide scientists with the first-ever interior view of a comet, and provide them with a window in what the early Solar System looked like.

rosetta-1The three NASA instruments include the MIRO, Alice, and IES. The MIRO (or Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter) comes in two parts – the microwave section and the spectrometer. The first is designed to measure the comet’s surface temperatures to provide information on the mechanisms that cause gas and dust to pull away from it and form the coma and tail. The other part, a spectrometer, will measure the gaseous coma for water, carbon monoxide, ammonia, and methanol.

Alice (not an acronym, just a nickname) is a UV spectrometer designed to determine the gases present in the comet and gauge its history. It will also be used to measure the rate at which the comet releases water, CO and CO2, which will provide details of the composition of the comet’s nucleus. IES (or Ion and Electron Sensor) is one of five plasma analyzing instruments that make up the Rosetta Plasma Consortium (RPC) suite. This instrument will measure the charged particles as the comet draws nearer to the sun and the solar wind increases.

oriontestflightNamed in honor of the Rosetta Stone – the a basalt slab that helped linguists crack ancient Egyptian – Rosetta is expected to provide the most detailed information about what comets look like up close (as well as inside and out). Similarly, the lander, Philae, is named after the island in the Nile where the stone was discovered. Together, they will help scientists shed light on the early history of our Solar System by examining one of its oldest inhabitants.

Next up, there’s the next-generation Orion spacecraft, which NASA plans to use to send astronauts to Mars (and beyond) in the not too distant future. And with its launch date (Dec. 4th, 2014) approaching fast, NASA scientists have set out what they hope to learn from its maiden launch. The test flight, dubbed EFT-1 is the first of three proving missions set to trial many of the in-flight systems essential to the success of any manned mission to Mars, or the outer Solar System.

orionheatshield-1EFT-1 will take the form of an unmanned test flight, with the Orion spacecraft being controlled entirely by a flight control team from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center located in Florida. One vital component to be tested is the Launch Abort System (LAS), which in essence is a fail-safe required to protect astronauts should anything go wrong during the initial launch phase. Designed to encapsulate the crew module in the event of a failure on the launch pad, the LAS thrusters will fire and carry the Orion away from danger.

Orion’s computer systems – which are 400 times faster than those used aboard the space shuttle and have the ability to process 480 million instructions per second- will also be tested throughout the test flight. However, they must also demonstrate the ability to survive the radiation and extreme cold of deep space followed by the fiery conditions of re-entry, specifically in the context of prolonged human exposure to this dangerous form of energy.

oriontestflight-1Whilst all systems aboard Orion will be put through extreme conditions during EFT-1, none are tested as stringently as those required for re-entry. The entire proving mission is designed around duplicating the kind of pressures that a potential manned mission to Mars will have to endure on its return to Earth, and so naturally the results of the performance of these systems will be the most eagerly anticipated by NASA scientists waiting impatiently in the Kennedy Space Center.

Hence the Orion’s heat shield, a new design comprised of a 41mm (1.6-inch) thick slab of Avcoat ablator, the same material that protected the crew of Apollo-era missions. As re-entry is expected to exceed speeds of 32,187 km/h (20,000 mph), this shield must protect the crew from temperatures of around 2,204 ºC (4,000 ºF). Upon contact with the atmosphere, the heat shield is designed to slowly degrade, drawing the intense heat of re-entry away from the crew module in the process.

orionheatshield-2The final aspect of EFT-1 will be the observation of the parachute deployment system. Assuming the LAS has successfully jettisoned from the crew module following launch, the majority of Orion’s stopping power will be provided by the deploying of two drogue parachutes, followed shortly thereafter by three enormous primary parachutes, with the combined effect of slowing the spacecraft to 1/1000th of its initial re-entry speed.

Previous testing of the parachute deployment system has proven that the Orion spacecraft could safely land under only one parachute. However, these tests could not simulate the extremes that the system will have to endure during EFT-1 prior to deployment. The Orion spacecraft, once recovered from the Pacific Ocean, is set to be used for further testing of the ascent abort system in 2018. Data collected from EFT-1 will be invaluable in informing future testing, moving towards a crewed Orion mission some time in 2021.

oriontestflight-2NASA staff on the ground will be nervously monitoring several key aspects of the proving mission, with the help of 1,200 additional sensors geared towards detecting vibration and temperature stress, while taking detailed measurements of event timing. Furthermore, cameras are set to be mounted aboard Orion to capture the action at key separation points, as well as views out of the windows of the capsule, and a live shot of the parachutes as they deploy (hopefully).

The launch promises to be a historic occasion, representing a significant milestone on mankind’s journey to Mars. Orion, the product of more than 50 years of experience, will be the first human-rated spacecraft to be constructed in over 30 years. The Orion will be launch is expected to last four hours and 25 minute, during which time a Delta-2 Heavy rocket will bring it to an altitude of 5,794 km (3,600 miles) with the objective of creating intense re-entry pressures caused by a return from a deep space mission.

And be sure to check out this animation of the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1:

Sources:, (2)

News From Space: “Rosetta Stone” Meteorite Lands in Ontario

meteorite_st.thomasA search is underway in the small community St. Thomas, Ontario for a rare meteorite that may prove to be a major scientific find. That’s what the Canadian and NASA researchers believe, and they are urging local residents to comb their fields and neighborhoods for one or more of the rock’s fragments. It all began on Tuesday, March 18th at 10:45 p.m., when a fireball streaked across the sky some 75 kilometres above Port Dover, Ont.

The fireball then headed in a westerly direction before vanishing at an altitude of 32 kilometres between Aylmer and St. Thomas. It was widely seen in Toronto, Hamilton, London and other parts of southern Ontario, where skies were clear. Peter Brown, the director of Western University’s Center for Planetary Science and Exploration, estimated the space rock was originally the size of a basketball, which then broke up upon entry.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????His colleague, Western University meteorite curator Phil McCausland, said one or more fragments “about the size of a golf ball or baseball” likely landed about five kilometers north or northwest of St. Thomas. The meteorite from this event is particularly rare and valuable because the fireball was captured by seven all-sky cameras of Western University’s Southern Ontario Meteor Network, allowing researchers to calculate its orbit.

Not only were they able to obtain solid data on the space rock’s orbit, but that orbit itself was special. Before entering Earth’s atmosphere, the object spent most of time circling closer to the sun than the Earth, having left its original orbit in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter long ago. Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s meteoroid environment office, said only one other meteorite known to have come from that kind of orbit has ever been recorded.

asteroids1As Cooke said during a recent press conference:

This is not your run-of-the-mill meteor fall. This is a very unusual orbit. We’re really interested in knowing what type of object was in this … We won’t know that until we find a piece of it.

According to Brown, this makes each of the meteorite’s fragments something of a “Rosetta Stone”, referring to the famous Egyptian artifact that was the key to translating ancient hieroglyphics. The comparison is not an exaggeration, as the meteor is likely to tell scientists quite a bit about the history of the early Solar System. As he described it:

This is like a poor man’s space probe. It comes to us. It’s going to tell us … what made the Earth, what made the other planets.

st.thomas_meteor1Hence why Brown is asking for the public to help look for the meteorite, which has been described as a rock that looks like it was painted black, and contact the researchers if they find it. The researchers are also interested in hearing accounts from anyone who may have heard a whistling sound “like artillery coming in” or a thud after witnessing the fireball, indicating that it may have landed within a few hundred metres. That may help narrow down the area for the search.

Brown noted that it’s the first time in five years that such a meteor fall has taken place in southern Ontario. The last time researchers issued a callout like this, the meteorite was recovered days later by a member of the public near Grimsby, Ont., where it had crashed through the windshield of an SUV. The fact that this meteorite did not cause injuries or property damage, unlike the one that exploded in the sky over Russia, is also a plus!