Thursday, June 25, 2009

50 YA: Double Launch Failures

Thor Agena rocket model on engineer's desk

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the failure of the Discovery IV failure to achieve orbit. The payload was a prototype device equipped with the KH-1 camera. These test flights would lead to the development of the Corona project spy satellite program. The camera would take its photos of the intended target, then at the appropriate orbit, eject the film cannister in a pod designed to survive re-entry and be recovered. However, after launch on a Thor-Agena-A rocket, Discoverer IV failed to reach orbit at all.

The objective was to monitor Soviet buildup of nuclear forces and long-range bombers. Of course, it was classified (until 1995!) and instead was presented to the public as a test of future technology needed to put humans in space and return them safely to the Earth.

Vanguard Rocket

Days earlier, on the 22nd,  the Vanguard SLV-6 attempted to orbit a satellite but also failed. By now, 2 of the Vanguard missions had been successful, but with this launch the failures stood at 8!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

LRO / LCROSS At The Moon

The LRO satellite is going through the process of making a series of orbital correction thruster burns over the next couple of days. NASA flight engineers are bringing the sensors and computers on line, and so far everything seems to be working fine.

The LCROSS satellite, launched with LRO, separated and made a swing-by of the Moon. Along with an empty upper stage which propelled the objects to the Moon, LCROSS will make measurements of impacts onto the lunar surface. 

Monday, June 22, 2009

MLAS Delayed

The test of the Max Launch Abort System has been delayed to no earlier than the 25th. The delay occurred because of problems completing preliminary tests at the launch site. SHould be exciting when it does launch.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Escape Capsule Tests

According to previous reports, today was supposed to include testing of an alternative design for ISS escape capsules. I don't have much information on this design, but it's supposed to be different than the standard Tower-Rockets-pull-off-the-capsule-variety. Good luck to the test team!

Meanwhile, the LRO is safely on its way to the Moon, where it should arrive on the 23rd.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

50 YA: Launch escape system tests

As the design of the Mercury spacecraft proceeded, engineers realized they needed a way to get the astronaut away from the rocket should there be an imminent danger of explosion before or during liftoff. The designers came up with a system of towers connected to the top of the capsules equipped with solid chemical motors which could quickly lift the capsule, with its occupants, rapidly up and away from the explosion danger area. Fifty years ago today, the first test of those motors began. The first flight tests would begin August of 1959.

NASA has not given up on testing new ways to protect astronauts. On the 20th of June NASA will test a concept vehicle designed to test new theories on how to protect astronauts in the future. The launch will take place at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Strike 2 for STS-127

Stop. Do not Pass Go for launch. Do not collect 17,500 mph.

Shuttle Endeavor again suffers another impediment for launch with a newly discovered hydrogen gas leak. The launch of the shuttle to the ISS was scrubbed early in the wee hours as a familiar problem crept back into the picture. This time the delay will be significant. The next window for the mission will open no sooner than July 11.

In the meantime, the LRO mission to the moon is set to go for tomorrow afternoon, proceeding as scheduled onboard an Atlas V rocket.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

New Launch Dates - STS-127 & LRO

With the hydrogen fuel leak under repair on Launch pad 39A, NASA has given the green light to a launch window on Wednesday, with expected launch time of the STS-127 mission at 3:40 a.m. MDT. With that early a launch time, even I might not set an alarm clock for that early and may sleep through a launch...

Close on its heels, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has had its launch pushed back to to Thursday the 18th. This satellite has the cool mission of starting preparations for NASA to pick the landing sites for upcoming Moon missions in the future (as well as other important objectives). The launch window for this flight (aboard an Atlas V rocket) begins at 3:12 p.m. MDT.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bad Reporting on Meteor strike

If you've been watching the news this week, you might have seen a fantastic report about a boy in Germany who was amazingly struck by a small fragment of the universe! According to initial reports, the pea-size meteorite was all that was left of the rock from space after mostly burning up in the atmosphere. The initial report, copied by all the on-line mainstream news organizations I looked at, stated the meteorite was traveling at a speed of 30,000 mph, with a loud bang and bright light struck a glancing blow to the boy, bouncing off him and burying itself into the road where it created a foot-wide mini-crater.

At first read, this is an amazing tale of survival just removed from a possible horrible death!

But lucky for me, I paid attention to my science and math studies in school. Did you? Do you recognize the warning signs of sensationalist reporting?

For  fun, go outside and find a pea-sized stone. Now, wander around and locate a nice patch of sandy soil. We won't even bother with a hard surface at this point. Next, the fun part! With all your might, throw that little stone into the sand and see what kind of crater it makes. With luck, you will see a tiny crater and watch some of the ejected material fly out.  Now try it on a driveway with asphalt. No such result, eh? Imagine with your mind now, how much force a stone that size would have to impart to create a foot-wide crater in that surface. 

But wait- the asteroid WAS traveling at 30,000 mph, wasn't it? THAT should certainly give it enough energy!

Hmmm. Wait a minute though. Just how fast IS 30,000 mph? This is where your schooling should have come in handy. We need something going REALLY fast - like a bullet- to make a comparison.

Your average US Marine fighting in Afghanistan is shooting a .223 caliber bullet from his rifle. The military .223 round is a little bigger than pea-sized, but good enough for our purposes. The .223 flies out the barrel at 2750 feet/second. If you know your math and how to tell time, we can compare these object speeds. 2750 f/s is very close to a half mile per second (2640 ft). So let's use that for easy comparison.

.5 mi./sec. times 60 seconds = 30 miles/minute. That bullet is going about 30 miles in one minute. Now, 30 mi./min. times 60 minutes = 1800 miles/hour. So, our bullet is traveling about 1800 mph.

According to initial reports, the boy was hit in the hand. Now, I know that a .223 traveling 1800 mph hitting a boy's hand is going to do something more than leave a slight scar. If it doesn't take OFF his hand, he's going to lose a finger or AT LEAST go to the hospital for major surgery.

But the meteorite was supposedly traveling 30,000 mph. As opposed to a bullet at 1800 mph. At that speed, I think the boy would not only lose his hand, but the energy from that fast an object would have probably torn off his arm- if not obliterating him and leaving a much larger smoking hole in the ground. No wonder there was a loud sound- A bullet leaves a large crack because it breaks the speed of sound, creating a shock wave (the boom) at about 760 mph.

Well, the initial reports did say there was a foot sized crater, didn't they? Funny that- but while all the reports showed a smiling German boy holding his pea-sized rock, there were NO photos of the so-called crater... isn't that strange?

Well, with all of this thinking, I began to immediately suspect the story was false. Looking at the story today, I find that amateur astronomers and meteor collectors have been doing their own sleuthing, and I may be justified in my doubts. 

Turns out that NO one has seen the so-called crater. And the supposed professional who examined the rock and declared it a meteorite, was a guy from the local public observatory. No professional space geologist has looked at this object yet. No one has ever known a small meteorite like this to have ever produced a small crater. The rules of Terminal Velocity show that these objects just ding onto the ground. It takes a stony or iron meteorite of significant weight to do damage such as the car damaged by a stony meteorite in New England a few years ago.

So we have a boy, 14 years old, reporting this incident, which happened to himself, with no witnesses, no authentic verification of the object, and no "smoking hole"... are you getting the picture?

The astronomical community is not convinced. And neither am I. Were you?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Launch Scrubbed today

Shuttle Endeavor still remains poised for launch atop Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy spaceport. The STS-127 mission was scrubbed for today when a hydrogen venting leak was detected on the pad. The dangerous nature of the leak meant that the launch had to be aborted, and the fuel drained from the ET (External Tank) before repairs could be implemented.

The exact problem is still under investigation and managers are expected to meet Sunday at about noon mountain time after the investigation and procedures have been thought through. A new launch time will then be appointed. According to NASA's website, the next window for a launch opportunity is June 17th, so no launch before then.

BTW: image credit is almost always NASA or NASA TV, or an uncredited source probably from NASA originally anyway. You and I pay for these images with every paycheck. And I'd rather have that tax dollar go to NASA than to some stupid bank bailout...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

50 YA: USS George Washington launch

Today marks the anniversary of the launching of the USS George Washington (SSBN-598), which was destined to become the first submarine ballistic launcher of the Polaris type missile. Our nation has depended on the Ballistic missile submarine concept to keep us safe from enemy nuclear attack, for over 45 years now. The idea behind putting the missiles on the submarine was, of course, that the enemy could never know where your missile subs were, and thus would be afraid of attacking the US in the first place, not knowing how soon we would retaliate with more terrible missiles.

Upcoming events

June 13 - Shuttle Endeavor awaits its launch for mission STS-127 to the International Space Station. Launch is expected to occur at about 5:17 Mountain Daylight Time. The seven-member crew will help build the Japanese Kibo module complex. Five spacewalks are planned, and they should be as difficult or challenging as the Hubble mission walks were.  This is the last one of three Kibo assembly missions. Since there are already six crew on the station now, this will give us the unusual experience of watching 13 astronauts working together in space for the first time. Man, that station is going to seem crowded!

June 19 - Spaceport America will have its groundbreaking ceremony. Located 45 miles north of Las Cruces, New Mexico, the spaceport will be the home of tourist flights into sub-orbit by Virgin Galactic. Construction of the facilities will include expansive tourist viewing areas to watch the launch of the carrier aircraft cradling their space tourist rockets. First flights are expected to begin December 2010.

Monday, June 8, 2009

50 YA: X-15

The X-15 was designed to test certain aspects of spacecraft design. Think about it: normal aerodynamic principles of craft control won't work in the vacuum of space, so you need some other way of getting a pilot to test advances in spacecraft design. Thus the X-15. Rocket powered, it would be taken up to a high altitude and dropped free. Using its tremendous rocket engine, it would zoom up to the highest levels of our atmosphere where the air is so thin that normal aviation controls don't apply. An area where you have to use directional thrusters, gyroscopes and the like to maintain control. This was NASA's way of helping to develope the controls that would eventually be used on spacecraft such as Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.  The pilots who flew the X-15s were among the best.

Fifty years ago test pilot Scott Crossfield was strapped into the first X-15 craft, attached to a B-52 bomber, and let go at an altitude of 38,000 feet. This was a test mission to ensure that the aerodynamic controls of the X-15 did work, so that the craft could be safely landed on the dry lakebeds of Edwards AFB. When you think about it, he performed what would be standard procedure for the space shuttle - controlled glide to landing without the option of a second chance. Of course, it was a successful flight.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

50 YA: Discoverer III Failure

Fifty years ago, the Discoverer III probe was launched by a Thor Agena A rocket from Vandenburg, CA. As part of the scientific payload, a number of mice rode the rocket into out space. Unfortunately, the probe failed to reach orbit as the orbital thrusters fired incorrectly and sent the payload toward the Earth. The probe, along with its passenger complement of rodents, burned up in the atmosphere.

Personal Flashback: As part of a science lesson I was teaching my class of fifth graders, we built a Quest model rocket with a payload section. The Code of Model Rocketry forbids the use of mammals of any type in model rocket experiments, and my students had me purchase a number of crickets from the pet store that we kept and "trained" as insect-o-nauts. Saved from certain death as a dinner for someone's pet, one of our brave crickets was placed into the rocket's payload section (of course with a clear see-through section) and the rocket prepped for launch from the back field of the school. Alas, the construction of the payload section was evidently not as well completed as the booster section. The rocket soared upward beautifully, but at apogee, the ejection charge of the rocket motor caused the payload and nose cone to detach from the rocket. And I do mean detach. With an audible BANG every piece came apart, the chute detached from the payload section and every piece of the section detached from every other piece. Evidently that included the cricket. The explorer's remains were never recovered.