Tuesday, August 31, 2010

50 YA: Spy Satellite Success

C-119 "Flying Boxcar" captures the spy film canister's parachute.

Never can trust those spies, can you? On the 19th I reported on the successful launch of Discoverer 14 from Cape Canaveral. Well, wouldn't you know it but that was the cover name for a secret spy satellite in the Corona program. Discoverer 14 became famous (at a top-secret level, of course) for being the first successful mid-air-capture of its film canister, ejected from the orbiting satellite, braking through the Earth's atmosphere, and descending to the ground by parachute. Only it was never destined to reach the ground. Instead, a military C-119 transport aircraft was equipped with a snagging-device which grabbed the parachute lines and reeled the canister into the cargo bay. The plane then continued on to a safe Air Force location. On the film? Pictures of the Soviet Union and other sensitive countries, of course!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Neptune at Opposition

Voyager's 1989 view of the storms and clouds on Neptune.

In 1989 I joined with hundreds of other space enthusiasts and astronomers, both amateur and professional, in one of the lecture halls in the Eyring Science Building at BYU. The occasion was the Voyager 2 flyby of the planet Neptune. As the spacecraft's images came in to JPL a duplicate feed was projected onto the large screen in the auditorium. If I remember right, it was late at night, but at that moment hundreds of cheers, "oooohs!" and "ahhhh!'s" erupted each time an image was refreshed.

The Voyager 2 encounter with Uranus in 1986 and with Neptune in 1989 really started my slide into the obsession with astronomy and space education. I moved from enthusiast into downright education, joining the BYU Astronomical Society and learning how to prepare and present planetarium shows in the Sarah B. Summerhays planetarium. By 1991 I was helping with spaceflight simulator missions and classes at the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center in Pleasant Grove, Utah.

Sometimes I get so busy with life, though, that the little things can slip by almost unnoticed.

It just so happens that on or about August 20, last Friday, Neptune reached opposition. That means that the Sun, Earth, and Neptune lined up in a straight line. On August 20th, Neptune was in the midnight sky exactly opposite from where the Sun would be at that time. Neptune is also almost at a point in its orbit when it shall reach its first complete orbital revolution since it was discovered way back in 1846. THAT important date should be reserved for a party or something. Because Neptune takes about 164+ years to go once around the Sun, we shall only see this once in our lifetime.

So make your plans now... next year we need to have a Neptune anniversary party.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

50 YA - A Volley of Rocket launches

Soviet stamp commemorating the launch of Korabl-Sputnik 2.

On August 18, 1960, there were several launches from the U.S. From Vandenberg Air Force Base, Discovery XIV lifted off on a Thor-Agena rocket into orbit. The 300-pound satellite orbited the Earth for over 94 minutes. Besides testing equipment, it also included external lights for visual tracking.

From Cape Canaveral, the Army tried to launch a Courier I-A communications satellite on a Thor-Able rocket. When it reached 15 miles in altitude, it became unstable and so the ranger safety officer was given the order to destroy the rocket. On the same day, also from the Cape, the Navy successfully launched a Polaris test missile on a 1,100-mile flight into the Atlantic.

The Tiros I communication satellite came back into operation after a 7-week lapse of silence. It was not expected that a picture could be obtained at this point.

Then on August 19, 1960, the Soviet Unit scored another successful launch: Sputnk V. Called Korabl-Sputnik by the Soviets, this spaceship satellite carried two dogs, Strelka and Belka, and a host of smaller animals. A TV camera sent back pictures of the animals in their restraints. The orbit period was 90 minutes long and stayed in space for a day. The animals were safely recovered by capsule parachute. One of Strelka's puppies later on was given to President Kennedy's wife, Jacqueline, as a present!

Monday, August 16, 2010

3rd Spacewalk to fix pump underway

Mission Control up before dawn.

Early this morning the ISS was buzzing with activity as the 3rd spacewalk to repair the cooling system was underway. The goal today is to install the replacement ammonia pump module into the S1 Truss. Successful installation will allow the station to resume full cooling. Performing the spacewalk this morning are Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Dyson.

Watching the activities this morning on NASA TV, brought something to mind. Remember not too long ago, politician Sarah Palin was giving a speech and the camera caught some notes written on her hand:

Inset picture shows hand note. Pic copyright

The liberal press made loads of criticism about the discovery, and many people made fun of her. But look at what we saw floating in space this morning while on the S1 Truss:

Hand notes on suit sleeve at bottom of pic. NASA TV.

It appears that even astronauts with PhD's and tons of training, backup from a mission control center and supporting astronauts inside the station still need to have quick reminders for various reasons. In this case the notes were helping Tracy Dyson as she reconnected fluid lines to the ammonia pump. SO, it seems that Sarah Palin was merely using advanced NASA EVA techniques. Instead of criticizing her, news commentators should have applauded her savvy know-how and advanced training. Snicker.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hi-Tech Toilet Woes

Astronaut Shannon Walker repairing ISS equipment. No, that's not the toilet.

While meteors streak across our sky and congressmen endlessly debate the future of the space program, life goes on aboard the ISS. Expedition 24 Flight Engineer Shannon Walker writes occasional blog entries about her current experience of living in orbit aboard the space station: http://blogs.chron.com/inorbit/ .

Her latest blog is quite illuminating about the daily routines of keeping the station working so that the experiments and explorations can continue. Her blog focuses on a very important piece of equipment: the space toilet. There are actually more than one toilets aboard the station, but it's the newest more convenient one that has broken down, and she draws the duty to repair it. Evidently no one is pleased to have to rely on the Russian-built toilet in the Russian module.

What's worse than trying to fix the toilet? How about having to document and write reports about every step you take? Or finding a mysterious (?) sludge in a tube connector that isn't supposed to have sludge in it?

Read her blog and find out how she deals with the situation, and more importantly, does she repair the toilet or are the crewmembers forced to float clear over to the Russian segment every time they have to experiment with life support systems?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Perseid Bombardment under way

Meteor streaks among the stars.

Recently the Earth has moved along in its orbit around the sun to encounter the orbital trail of debris left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle. As the small bits of rock and dust encounter the Earth's atmosphere, they heat up to an incandescent glow in a mere instant, leaving behind a trail of fading light for us to enjoy. Some particles are large enough to become "fireballs," a meteor that ends in a flash of explosion that is quite noticeable. These meteors in last night's showers are called the Perseids because they seem to come from the same point in the sky (the radiant), located in the constellation of Perseus.

We've actually been entering the area of the comet trail since about late July. The peak of the encounter would have been last night, so I managed to wake up at about 12:30 am and go outside for a gander. For the best view, you really need to get away from the city lights which cause the sky to brighten enough so that the faintest meteors will not be seen. I was a bit lazy, so I just set up a lawn chair on the driveway, adjusted it's position so I could face the constellations of Cassiopeia and Perseus, and moved it enough so a nearby tree would block the very annoying bright streetlight half a block away. To the east, Mt. Timpanogos blocked the horizon up to about 30 degrees. I could see a couple of cars or atv's working their way up the hillsides to reach a better viewing position, I supposed. It wouldn't help them, that position was still way too close to the city lights.

I could hear people's muffled voices eminating from several nearby backyards as my neighbors stayed out for the show as well. Every now and then cars would zoom up the streets. Evidently a lot of my neighbors don't come home till after midnight! It also got a bit chilly during my stay outdoors, as the drop from our daytime high to a nighttime low made it feel colder than it was. Fortunately, there were no annoying clouds of mosquitos or other disturbing bugs.

As time passed, I could easily notice the rotation of the Earth as the constellations slowly rose from the horizon into the eastern sky. Perseus was hidden at first by the top of Timpanogos, but gradually the top half rose above the mountain into a prominent position.

I didn't have to wait long. Within a couple minutes the first meteor flashed overhead as if on it's way to California. Because I couldn't see the dimmer meteors, it meant the ones I would see would be fairly bright (although some were dimmer to me, about half I think). After five minutes a very bright meteor streaked overhead and I knew the show had already started! While I kept count and checked my watch, I calculated my personal observation rate was about 20-30 per hour. Not bad for a city-light-polluted location. I noticed streaks in many different areas: to the north, to the southeast, from the north east, and overhead. Almost all seemed to have come from the same point in the sky. From my view it looked more as if they were radiating from the eastward edge of Cassiopeia, rather than Perseus.

I was very tired however, and knew I wouldn't stay up long. I called it quits after a medium-bright flash sighting about 1:30 am. I would have seen more meteors if I hadn't been distracted. You see, I also had my astronomy binoculars with me, and I couldn't help but also take the opportunity to view Jupiter with a couple of Moons showing, the Andromeda galaxy, the Double Cluster in Perseus, and various other star clusters and stars. What I found surprising was the lack of satellites. Normally I can spot traveling satellites about once every twenty minutes. Then I realized that at that time, we were well into the shadow of the Earth, and there would be no reflecting sunlight to reveal their locations!

Overall a very enjoyable experience and I'll plan better for the next one.

The bombardment of projectiles was spectacular but the Bunker remained safe. The enemy bomber Swift-Tuttle has laid these particulate mines for us to run into, but they are so small they can't penetrate our atmospheric shields. Oh, the occasional large one may smite the Earth, but no reports of damage or casualties have been heard. The danger is not over yet, though- we won't pass the minefield until about August 24th.

ISS 2nd Spacewalk Success

Spacewalkers on truss in center of picture. Credit: NASA TV

No ammonia shower this time! Spacewalkers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell were the astronauts making the second attempt to repair the faulty ammonia cooling pump located on the S1 Truss. This is no easy task. They completed the disassembly of the coolant lines, and safely removed the faulty pump which was then stored on the Mobile Base System payload bracket. The rest of the spacewalk was used to prepare the replacement pump for its installation. That bit of business will take place on a third spacewalk, currently scheduled for Monday August 16. This spacewalk lasted over seven hours.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Spacewalk Troubles

Diagram by NASA indicating location of pump on the S1 Truss.

Saturday's eight-hour spacewalk ended in difficulties. While working on disconnecting the fourth of four coolant cables in the broken ammonia pump, a leak developed which sprayed ammonia over the astronaut's suit. Extra time was required to clean off the toxic ammonia as the astronauts retreated to the station airlock.

With this setback, a second and third spacewalk are planned to work on the problem. The next EVA will take place Wednesday beginning at 4 am MDT. The objective is to complete the removal of the failed pump and prepare the replacement for its transfer. The installation of the new pump is scheduled for Sunday.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

ISS Spacewalk in progress

Maintenance on the S1 Truss.

Expedition 24 astronauts are floating above the Earth on a planned 7-hour spacewalk this morning. The EVA started at around 4 a.m. MDT. Spacewalkers are Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell. They are attempting to replace the ammonia pump located on the S1 Truss, part of the central "backbone" of the ISS. A second spacewalk is planned for Wednesday. The repair is part of the procedure for fixing the current cooling and power problem on the station.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Space simulator at work

There are only two REAL space simulations on Earth: the Vomit Comet, and the NBL. The vomit comet is a NASA jetliner with a large open cargo area, that flies a parabolic flight path so that there are occasional 30-second moments of actual weightlessness. The NBL is Johnson Space Center's Neutral Bouyancy Laboratory, which is basically a GIANT swimming pool that includes a replica of the station exterior. There, the astronauts in spacesuits are specially weighted and guided by divers to simulate the effects and difficulties of performing maintenance outside the ISS.

Astronauts Robert Satcher, Jr. and Rick Sturkow practiced techniques that will be used by the Expedition 24 astronauts Friday. This effort gives NASA a heads-up to potential problems and responses that might be encountered.

Trivia Question for viewers: Which Gemini astronaut championed the development and use of a swimming pool for space training?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Major system malfunctions in ISS

Suits are prepared in the Quest airlock.

Sometimes things break. When they break in space, it's time to be prepared instead of panic. Astronauts on the ISS were preparing to make a spacewalk in preparation for an upcoming shuttle launch. Instead, they'll now be making two spacewalks to repair the cooling and power systems on the ISS.

Over the weekend, an electrical spike tripped a breaker in the station's electrical system which shut down one of the ammonia tank pumps, necessary for cooling the station. When the system was restarted, it appeared there was further damage when half the station lost power.

Luckily (actually thanks to foresight!), spare parts are located on the external storage rack outside the station. The station itself is not in danger, as there are planned steps to cut power use and maintain necessary life support in case something like this should happen. Instead of a regularly planned day, however, the team is preparing to make the spacewalks necessary to get the station into fully operational condition.

The spacewalks will begin about 4 a.m. MDT on Friday.

Monday, August 2, 2010

50 YA: Atlas tests

Atlas test missile

Fifty years ago, NASA faced the huge challenge of developing a rocket which could launch a man into space. For the Mercury program, that meant it had to lift a single-occupant capsule into low Earth orbit. The Redstone and Atlas missiles seemed to offer the best opportunities.

Unfortunately the Atlas conversion from the nuclear weapon missile to a man-rated launch vehicle proved to be a challenge. The test, named MA-1, occurred 50 years ago (actually July29, 1960) ended in disaster, failing 58 seconds after launch.

The missile carried an unmanned test copy of the Mercury capsule. No escape system was provided. The capsule was meant to go into a sub-orbital flight and re-enter for testing. Instead the wreckage of the capsule and rocket fell into the Atlantic ocean 10 miles from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The wreckage was recovered for analysis. Pieces of the wrecked capsule are currently located at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas.

The wrecked capsule after recovery.