Friday, September 23, 2011

UARS Satellite Coming Down!


It's Duck-and-Cover time, folks, as a big piece of space junk is headed our way and just may hit someone! Sure, the chances of it hitting YOU in particular are about 1 in a trillion, but hey, you're on the planet, aintcha?

UARS in orbit.

NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) is expected now to re-enter the atmosphere sometime late Friday the 23rd or early Saturday the 24th. As the trajectory becomes more clear, it seems that we Americans may be in it's probable fall zone. That zone could be an estimated 500 miles long.

UARS has had a good life, performing its research since 1991 in orbit of the Earth. It's a big boy, though, about 6.5 tons and the size of a school bus (why are things always related to the size of a bus or Rhode Island?) and it won't all burn up during re-entry. Scientists have estimated that about 26 pieces will survive to land on the ground. The fall through the atmosphere will cool the pieces so it shouldn't be hot when it lands. However, there are some coolants and reactants that could be harmful to human flesh so if you should find a piece, don't touch it(!) but rather notify local police and take lots of awesome pictures.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Expedition 28 Ends, Expedition 29 Takes Command

Soyuz spacecraft leaves the ISS.

Last week the crew of Expedition 28 to the ISS boarded their Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft and undocked from the station. During a previous change of command ceremony, Astronaut Mike Fossum became the commander of Expedition 29 on the station with crewmembers Satoshi Furukowa and Sergei Volkov. After a day of maneuvering and changing altitude, the Exp 28 crew fired braking thrusters and headed for re-entry through the Earth's atmosphere.

Soyuz return capsule safely deployed its parachute. Great photo of the capsule passing the Moon in the sky.

Engineers in both the USA and Russia have been concerned about the schedule of launching personnel to the ISS, after two incidents with the second and third stages of the Soyuz rockets. Management in both agencies agreed that the Expedition 28 crew should return as normally scheduled.

Touchdown! A bit rougher than a shuttle landing, but for now the only way.

The returning crew arrived back on Earth Thursday and were safely and quickly recovered from their spot in the Russian wilderness. Good work Expedition 28!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

50 YA -Discoverer XXXI: Doomed to fail

Thor-Agena rocket at USAF museum in Dayton, Ohio.

Fifty years ago on September 17, the USAF launched another Corona spy satellite mission from launch facilities at Vandenberg AF Base in California. Launched into a polar orbit, the Corona satellite was supposed to make secret photos of Soviet deployment of bombers and missiles. Unfortunately, on September 19th when the film cannister was due to eject and parachute to Earth for recovery, there was a power failure on the 33rd orbit. Both the film cannister and the satellite remained in orbit.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

50 YA - Mercury makes an orbit!

MA-4 blasts off from Cape Canaveral.

With the Soviets still gloating about their successful man-in-space program, the NASA engineers were trying to catch up. Fifty years ago on September 13 they made a big step forward. NASA was moving on from the Redstone rocket and was ready to try the Atlas. The Atlas had suffered quite a few malfunctions, some of them tragic, and NASA officials (and astronauts I might add!) were very apprehensive about putting a man on the Atlas.

MA-4 was a test flight for the combination. An unmanned Mercury capsule (8A, which had been previously #8 on an aborted mission) was placed on Atlas rocket LV3-B #88D. It lifted off perfectly from Launch Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral in FLorida. The capsule separated as expected and completed an orbit. It successfully returned through the atmosphere and was recovered by the destroyer USS Decatur (DD-936). All of the tests were performed well, relieving the scientists and helping us prepare for the eventual manned flight.

50 YA- Discoverer XXX

Thor-Delta rocket, often used in the Corona/Discoverer program.

FIfty years ago on September 12, 1961 the USAF launched Discoverer 30, a spy satellite in the Corona series, into a polar orbit from Vandenberg AF Base in California. This satellite's mission was to get photographic proof of how fast the Soviet Union was building bombers and rockets, and where they were placing them.

Discoverer 30 was a very successful mission. It carried the KH-3 spy camera system. This system would eventually expose its film, and at a precisely calculated moment, would eject the film canister in a shielded pod which could survive re-entry. On September 14, the pod was ejected, and while it floated to Earth on a parachute, was snagged and recovered by a special C-130B transport designed to catch these falling satellites.

50 YA - Tiros III spots a monster

Tiros spin-stabilized satellite.

Almost Forgot! We remember that Tiros 3, an early weather satellite, had some success in spotting storms at sea. %0 years ago, it spotted and captured on camera a full blown hurricane.

Gotcha! Esther in 1961.

Like the first two Tiros machines, the processes of watching storms from space were still developing and were experimental. It took about 8 hours for the images to be processed through the early computers of the time, and the photos themselves were not considered proof enough to declare Esther an official hurricane. It was, though, enough to recognize the storm for the danger it was and to begin tracking it. Two days later, hurricane-hunter aircraft penetrated the storm and proved winds were at hurricane strength. It was also determined to be heading towards the U.S.

Hurricane Irene hits the Bahamas, 2011.

Now compare the image of another beast, this time the recent hurricane Irene. As you are aware, Irene just completed a very damaging hit to the eastern seaboard of the U.S. causing billions of dollars in damage. Irene was tracked minute by minute by today's modern weather watchers in space, from its discovery as a front just off the coast of Africa to its last moments sweeping to see in the North Atlantic. Because we had adequate warning, many lives were saved and much property protected. This is the great advantage of space access and technology.

Back in 1961, Esther struck back as a hurricane-hunter went missing and seven airmen were killed. Esther made a loop in its path before crashing into New England and causing $37 million in damages, very modest compared to Irene's damage. Am interesting note: Esther was the first hurricane to experience our scientists' attempts to use cloud-seeding to dump water while out at sea. As a fact, Esther did weaken before hitting land, which encouraged scientists to try more methods like this.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

GRAIL heads for the Moon

Delta II with GRAIL launches from LC-17B.

Well, if we can't send people, at least we're sending satellites. The GRAIL probe is on its way to the Moon. Blastoff was at 7:08 a.m. MDT this morning, from the Cape Canaveral AF station. The Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory will reach the moon on New Years eve and go into orbit on Jan 1, 2012. It's purpose is to map the intracacies of the lunar magnetic fields to study the makeup of the Moon's core.

Monday, September 5, 2011

50 YA: NASA Buys more land for Cape Canaveral

View from the 1960's.

50 Years ago, the US Senate approved a resolution granting NASA funds to purchase more land for the expansion of Cape Canaveral launch facilities. The Air Force station at Cape Canaveral would continue to be used throughout the Mercury and Gemini programs, and would include the testing for Apollo 1. However, plans for the Apollo Program required an enlargement of the launch area and the construction of larger, more complex launch structures.

Map of launch facilities.

Looking at the map, Cape Canaveral US Air Force Station extends from the bottom of the Cape through to LC 41, where Atlas rockets are still launched today. North of that area, is actual NASA Kennedy Space Center land, hosting the Apollo program launch pads and the great trackway from the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) to the 2 complexes which were used for Apollo and the Space Shuttles until just recently.