Sunday, July 31, 2011

War against the Comet Empire Continues

That little white dot in the center is 2010 TK7.

It's been a week of good news down here in the SpaceRubble Bunker. Although Earth continues to be lightly bombarded by occasional meteorites, several advancements were recently made in identifying objects in the Solar System that give us greater understanding of how the asteroid belt exists and some more insight into potentially dangerous asteroids.

Firstly, though not as spectacular as some of the other news, astronomers discovered that asteroids 2010 TK7 is a Trojan Asteroid. This designation signifies that the rock, about 300 meters in diameter, maintains its position basically in the same orbit as our planet. This particular rock seems to maintain a stability pattern that occasionally brings it to within 24 million kilometers of our planet. It is currently at about 80 million kilometers distance, which indicates a complex trajectory. The stability comes from the named "Trojan Points" which are LaGrange gravity points L4 and L5. These asteroids have been suspected to exist, but so far 2010 Tk7 is the first to actually be detected.

Comet 103P/Hartley 2 picture and orbit.

Meanwhile, a little spacecraft named SOHO (SOlar and Heliospheric Observer) made great progress in measuring the amount of water and dust chunking off of comet 103P/Hartley 2. These studies will help astronomers understand better how a comet loses mass, as well as how a comet is composed and how it operates as it passes the warm regions of the inner solar system.

Vesta up close.

Also making BIG news this week was asteroid Vesta. NASA's space probe Dawn entered a temporary orbit around this giant space rock. Vesta and asteroid Ceres are the two largest member of the asteroids inhabiting the "belt" between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn will visit both asteroids, giving us unprecedented views and information about these bodies. Vesta is known as the brightest asteroid, visible from Earth, and is about 529 kilometers in diameter (roughly).

Important News!
This week marks the time of brightest appearance of asteroid Vesta. It's peak is expected about the 5th of August. Thanks to diagrams in Astronomy magazine, it will be very possible to view Vesta. Therefore, SpaceRubble Command will undertake an Observation Quest this weekend and attempt to spot Vesta with binoculars. This event will be covered (successfully or not!) in the blogs here at SpaceRubble. Look for coverage on or around the 6th of next week.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

50 YA - Testing for an Accident

Atlas missile (model A shown) launching from Pad LC-12.

Fifty years ago, the ICBM tests continued down at the Cape. Both NASA and the US Air Force were conducting tests of the various Atlas configurations. Engineers working with both programs learned much from each other. In the case of this particular launch, the test was meant to simulate what would happen if there were a failure of an atomic fuel core aboard a satellite or warhead, during re-entry. Scientists were especially interested in the dispersal pattern of the pieces as they fell to Earth.

Atlas-E launch sequence from trailer.

The rocket used for the test fifty years ago on July 31 (yes I'm a day ahead here, how strange!) was the Atlas model E. This model featured some new rocket guidance equipment, and was designed to be able to launch from a trailer-launch pad system. Atlas E's would be made operational in squadron use starting in September 1961. The last launch of an Atlas E (reconfigured as an Atlas E/F) would take place in 1995! Atlas E launches would fly from Cape Canaveral pads LC-11 and LC-13.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

50 YA - ICBM Testing

Titan 1 liftoff from Cape Canaveral.

FIfty years ago the Cape was a whirlwind of activity. NASA had just completed the launch of Freedom 7, with astronaut Gus Grissom. Despite the loss of the capsule in the Atlantic, other projects continued as planned. On July 25, the Air Force successfully launched a Titan-1 Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM. Using its own internal guidance, the rocket travelled 5,000 miles out over the Atlantic Missile Range.

Titan 1 on a test pad.

The Titan project would develop to become one of our most important rocket programs, not just for military purposes, but also for NASA. The space agency had just completed its second manned suborbital flight, and would now prepare for a launch of a man into orbit. The Soviets had already completed this task, because their A-7 rocket had greater thrust and could lift a heavier capsule. NASA's choice for lifting the Mercury capsule (1-man) into orbit would be the Atlas ICBM rocket, modified for safely carrying a human. There were still problems with this rocket, which had failed many times on the test launches. But looking even further, NASA planned to develop the Gemini program to launch a two-person craft into space, and for that NASA would need a very powerful rocket. Titan would end up serving that purpose years after Liberty Bell 7.

Minuteman-1 at a museum.

On July 27, 1961, the Air Force successfully launched another new ICBM rocket. The Minuteman-1 lifted off from the Cape Canaveral from its pad and continued downrange about 4,000 miles. This was the third test of this new ballistic missile. Minuteman would eventually add to, and later replace the Titan as our main silo-based nuclear deterrent. The advantage a Minuteman missile had over the Titan, was that Minuteman had a solid-fuel rocket engine and could thus be launched more quickly.

At the Cape, the Air Force used pads LC-15, 16, 19 and 20 for the Titan 1 program launches. The Minuteman LGC-30 Minuteman-1 program performed launches from Launch Complex 31. This complex would become famous many years, later, as the resting site of the remains of the space shuttle Challenger after its explosion and wreckage recovery.

LC-31 in 1961, with Minuteman-1 in place.

Lowering the remains of Challenger into the silo that would be constructed at LC-31. This site is visible today from the bus tour at the Cape Canaveral Air Force complex.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

50 YA - America's Second Space Flight!

MR-4 launch from Pad 5.

Mercury-Redstone 4 launched from Cape Canaveral on July 21, 1961. Perched atop the Redstone rocket was Mercury spacecraft #11, affectionately nicknamed "Liberty Bell 7" by its occupant, astronaut Virgil I. Grissom.

Air Force Captain Gus Grissom.

Captain Grissom was known to the world as Gus. He didn't like his name Virgil, and certainly didn't want to be known by his middle name, "Ivan" - especially during the Cold War with the Soviets! He had flown 100 combat missions flying the F86F Sabrejet fighter, and later became a test pilot. He was NASA's second choice to fly into space.

Technicians servicing Mercury spacecraft #11.

The capsule Gus would fly into space was modified from the one Captain Shepard flew on the first flight. This model had a centerline window and had an improved attitude control system for easier spacecraft maneuvering. Technicians painted a simulated crack on the exterior, after Gus had named the capsule "Liberty Bell 7."

Gus enters the capsule, a tight fit for anyone.

Backup astronaut for the mission was John Glenn, Jr. He was scheduled to fly the next mission. In the small preparation room surrounding the capsule at the top of the tower, John helped technicians squeeze Gus into the spacecraft and then sealed the hatch shut. At this time, the hatches were bolted shut with 70 small bolts. This would make exiting the capsule a difficult thing were it not for emergency explosive devices that when activated would disconnect the bolts and propel the hatch some 25 feet. Normal procedure would be for the astronaut to exit through the top hatch in the antenna compartment. During final preparations, one bolt on the hatch failed to line up properly, and after a 30 minute wait, technicians decided that 69 bolts wouold have to do the job.

Launch occurred a little after noon on July 21st. Because they were using the Redstone rocket, there was insufficient thrust to place the capsule into orbit, so the flight was only planned for a 15-minute suborbital journey over the Atlantic ocean. Gus experienced about 6 G's, or six times the force of gravity during the ascent into space. He noted that the blastoff was smoother than he expected, but some vibration increasing toward the end of acceleration.

The craft separated from the rocket and Gus had control of the craft. During tests of the control system Gus discovered that the controls were more sluggish in reality than he had experienced in the simulators. He activated the new rate control system, which then performed flawlessly.

Having reached an altitude of 118 miles, Gus prepared for re-entry and positioned the capsule so the heat shield faced forward. The retrorockets jettisoned on time and the craft decelerated at about 3 G's. Parachutes deployed fine and he landed the spacecraft in the ocean 486 miles from his launch site. The carrier USS Randolph stood by to recover astronaut and capsule.

Unexpectedly, the hatch explosive bolts activated and the hatch was thrown from the craft. Water began entering the hatch from wave action and the capsule began to sink. GUs had to preform his own emergency egress from the craft and enter the water as the helicopters arrived. At first his suit kept him floating fine in the water.

Attempting to hook up to the capsule.

The helicopters ignored the floating Gus and focused on attempts to hook up the capsule and lift it from the water. Unfortunately, the increasing weight of the capsule, now filling with seawater, put an increased strain on the helicopter engines and warning lights began to show in the cockpit. Metal chips from the engine were entering the oil system and the second helicopter had to be assigned to grab the capsule. Meanwhile, Gus noticed that his suit had a hole and was filling with water also. He was sinking too.

Gus is lifted from the water.

Additional attempts to lift the capsule were failing. Gus reached a "collar" lowered from the helicopter, slung one arm into it and was pulled to safety. The pilot of the second helicopter decided against further risk to his craft and cut the cable to the capsule. Liberty Bell 7 sank to an estimated depth of 28oo fathoms.

Last view of the Liberty Bell 7 before it takes the plunge.

Safely aboard the carrier, Gus went through an intense debriefing and medical examination. The mission was considered a failure because of the loss of the spacecraft. Engineers familiar with the explosive bolts system would blame Gus for the accident, claiming he must have deliberately or accidentally "blown" the hatch. Gus always insisted that the hatch detonated by itself without any reason. Later, Gus would be cleared of wrongdoing by an investigation court.

Gus escorted from the flight deck of the carrier.

For Gus, there would be no grand welcoming like that received by Alan Shepard. Rumors abounded about the reason of the hatch release. Eventually, astronaut Wally Schirra performed an experiment on his capsule after landing, to see how the explosive hatch reacted. His hand injury from the detonation was quite apparent. Gus received no such injury, indicating he had been correct and had not accidentally hit the explosive hatch release. Gus was vindicated by his fellow pilots. Gus would stay with the program and would later play an important part in the development of both the Gemini and Apollo programs.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

STS135: Atlantis rolls safely to a stop

Heads up display inside Atlantis cockpit.

At 3: 57 a.m. MDT Thursday, July 21, shuttle orbiter Atlantis touched down on the long runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The drogue chute deployed, slowing the craft while it braked to ensure it didn't roll right off the tarmac. When it came to a stop, so did the STS program.

Well at least you can see the drogue chute.

The landing took place just before the first rays of dawn hit the East Coast, so it was still pretty dark. The shuttle's arrival was first announced by the twin sonic booms as it entered Florida airspace faster than the speed of sound. NASA infrared cameras picked up the falling orbiter, glowing in infrared from its fiery journey through the atmosphere. The astronauts guided the craft through a series of turns, bleeding off excess speed while dropping like a huge brick from the sky.

Infrared view of the end of the journey.

Once stopped, the orbiter released pent-up gases and heat while astronauts began shutting down systems. When the shuttle was off and the gases safe enough, the hatch was opened and the astronauts released to the ground, gaining their Earth-legs again.

Move along, folks. It's all over. Nothing to see here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

STS135: Atlantis prepares for final landing

Atlantis undocked and free of the station.

The astronauts on board shuttle Atlantis have been preparing their ship for its final return to Earth scheduled for Thursday. After undocking from ISS and moving the shuttle away from the station, astronauts used the robotic arm to take a final inspection of the heat tiles underneath the orbiter, ensuring they had no problems with the protective shield.

In the flight deck: Commander Chris Ferguson (back left) and pilot Doug Hurley. In front are mission specialists Sandy Magnus (left) and Rex Walhelm.

The crew also checked out the craft's landing and thruster systems, and the commander and pilot simulated landing procedures using a laptop computer simulator program.

Expedition 28 astronaut Mike Fossum took this beautiful picture of Atlantis just before the undocking sequence. Perfect view of the Raffaello logistics module in the shuttle cargo bay.

Milestone alert: The crew also found time to launch a small micro satellite, named PicoSat. This remarkable little explorer, under 10 inches in largest dimension, is designed to test some new solar cells during its time in orbit. This launching marks the 180th payload to be deployed during the shuttle program.

It was also the Last. Bon Voyage, PicoSat!

Monday, July 18, 2011

STS-135: Packing for trip home

ISS camera shows Raffaello cargo module in shuttle cargo bay.

Just about an our ago astronauts used the robotic arms to disconnect the Raffaello logistics module from the ISS and attach it back into the cargo bay of shuttle Atlantis. The Raffaello is packed with finished experiments and garbage that is designated for return to Earth for studies.

Raffaello at the end of the CanadArm 2.

Final supplies have been stored and prepared aboard the space shuttle and all systems are ready for undocking this morning. The last step is to perform a final shuttle undocking ceremony for the cameras and then close the hatch. The ISS crew gave astronaut Mike Fossum of the Atlantis crew a model of the shuttle, representing a small monument if you will, in honor of all those whose spirits soared with the shuttle on each flight. Another item passed along is a special flag, which had originally flown on the very first shuttle mission, STS-1 with shuttle Columbia. The challenge to the ISS astronauts is that it should be returned on the next US spacecraft to visit the ISS, hopefully not too far away in our future. The flag was presented to astronaut Ron Garan.

Closing Ceremony.

The closing ceremony was fairly touching, besides the exchange of momentos, there were words of thanks and congratulations on a mission well done. The ISS now stands ready to begin its lonely vigil in the outpost of Earth Orbit, with only cargo pods and Soyuz ferry rockets to look forward to. We will miss the shuttle and its unique ability to transfer huge cargos and pieces of the station. Not only that, but the shuttle offered the only other airlock useable for conducting maintenance spacewalks and offered unique safety capabilities for the station.

In the airlock tunnel, ISS astronauts close the Atlantis hatch.

With the end of the ceremony, the crew of Atlantis floated through the hatch and the ISS astronauts helped them secure the airlock. Atlantis will depart from ISS tomorrow.

Ron Garan closing the hatch in Node 2 airlock on ISS. The special Flag is affixed to the hatch out of picture.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

STS-135: Update

Joint crew of STS135 and Expedition 28.

My employers unexpectedly required me to be in San Diego for a work conference last week, and so I was unable to make a few mission blogs covering the launch of shuttle Atlantis and the crew of STS-135. By now you all should be aware that the launch was successful, and that operations on the ISS are proceeding as planned.

Launch from Pad 39A.

Despite some concerns about possible weather delays, the shuttle took off last Friday on the official last mission of a space shuttle to the ISS. Its four member crew performed visual checks of the shuttle heat tiles the next day, and docked to ISS on Sunday. DUring the next couple of days the ground controllers monitored potential danger from nearby Russian space junk.

View from spacewalking astronaut Ron Garan.

On Tuesday, Astronauts Ron Garan and Mike Fossum conducted the last spacewalk during a shuttle mission to ISS. During the six-and-a-half hour EVA, they Retrieved a failed pump for return to Earth, installed a couple of experiments, and constructed a new base for the station's robotic arms.

Astronaut Sandy Magnus floats amidst supply packs.

Astronauts also continued to unload cargo from the Rafael resupply module stored in the shuttle's cargo bay. This task was made easier by using the robotic arms to pick up the cargo pod and move it into docking with the station itself! During all the resupply operations, astronauts also conducted interviews with reporters and took a special phone call from President Obama.

Time alone to ponder. Sandy Magnus in the Observation cupola.

Atlantis is scheduled to return in four days.

Friday, July 8, 2011

STS-135: Atlantis prepares for Last Shuttle Launch

Flight Deck view of technician helping astronauts get seated.

This is it.
Time has passed quickly this summer, and we've reached the last mission of the Space Transportation System, or STS. Atlantis is preparing for a launch from Cape Kennedy at 9:26 a.m. MDT. Weather is not looking good, and there is a good chance that the mission will be scrubbed this morning. However, the window of opportunity for launch to the ISS is open and the crew is anxious to begin the mission they were trained for.

Atlantis ready on the pad, fueled up and all systems being checked.

On this last mission of the shuttle program, Atlantis will carry four astronauts, supplies, and the Raffaello logistics module to be installed on the station. One spacewalk is planned during their stay. The crew is Commander Chris Fergusson, Pilot Doug Hurley, with Sandy Magnus and Rex Walhelm serving as mission specialists.