Monday, October 31, 2011

Weekend Launches

NPP assembly in the clean room.

On early Friday Morning, NASA launched the NPP, the NPOESS Preparatory Project, into orbit aboard a Delta II rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This satellite will be the first in a new series of Earth-observing probes that will help us monitor what is really happening with the climate.

Progress 45 lifts off to the ISS.

After a delay for investigating the causes of a Progress crash a couple of months ago, Russia has given the green light and launched the next cargo mission to the ISS. Progress 45 blasted off from Kazakhstan on Sunday for a 3 day trip to the station. As usual, the pod contains fuel, oxygen, water, spare parts and supplies for the Expedition 29 crewmembers.

Last Saturday, the crew of Expedition 29 jettisoned the Progress 42 cargo pod, and ground controllers sent it to burn up in the atmosphere, taking a load of station garbage with it. Progress 45 will dock in its place on Wednesday.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

50 YA: First Saturn 1 launch

Saturn SA-1 launch from LC-34 at Cape Canaveral.

Fifty years ago, NASA achieved one of its major milestones in the Apollo program. From Launch Complex 34 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the first rocket in the Saturn family blasted off. The basic first stage consisted of several Redstone rockets linked together, with a second and third stage assembly filled with water to test weight requirements.

Saturn 1 first stage during assembly.

The basic design of the rocket was under the direction of Werner Von Braun, who had succeeded in launching America's first satellite Explorer 1 on his Jupiter rocket back in 1958. The Saturn 1 used six times the fuel that the Jupiter had used in that flight. The nose cone of the Saturn SA-1 flight was a Jupiter nose cone.

Von Braun and Engineers with Saturn assembly.

LC-34 was constructed with Apollo in mind. A large concrete pad and rocket stand were built on the north end of the Cape Canaveral complex. The pieces for the Saturn 1 arrived in August. The main first stage arrived by barge. During the trip, the barge managed to hit one of the low bridges in the area. Still, assembly went well and fuel began loading on October 26th.

First stage being positioned at LC-34.

One sad note: LC-34 would be the site in 1966 of the Apollo 1 fire, in which three astronauts would perish. THe tower structures on LC34 were enormous compared to Atlas and Gemini structures, due to the height and size of the new rocket.

Saturn SA-1 ready for launch.

By morning of October 27, 1961 all was ready for the launch. There had only been a delay of about one hour. At about 11:06 am (my estimation from UTC) the vehicle lifted off and flew 206 miles downrange over the Atlantic. It reached an altitude of 86 miles before descending. All mission objectives were met.

Von Braun in the firing room bunker, observing the launch through a periscope for safety.

Remaining Concrete structure at Pad LC-34. Picture taken by SpaceRubble Commander.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

50 YA: MIDAS, Discoverer 33, and Polaris Testing

Agena stage being loaded onto an Atlas rocket.

Fifty Years ago the US Air Force was attempting to place satellites in orbit that could warn us if an enemy country launched ballistic missiles at the USA. Named MIDAS (MIssile Defense Alarm System) the project would eventually launch nine satellites between 1960 and 1966. The sensors were primitive compared to later versions and often failed to detect launches. But the mission launched October 21, 1961 was successful. An Atlas-Agena rocket placed the MIDAS 4 sub-satellites into a polar orbit from the Pacific Missile Range.

Thor-Agena on the pad at Vandenberg AF Base in California.

On October 23, the USAF launched another Discoverer mission. Discoverer 33 failed to achieve polar orbit. The rocket shut down too early in the flight, and the spy satellite failed to separate and was lost into the Pacific.

Titan 1a.

On October 24, while scientists tracked the movement of the MIDAS sub-satellites in orbit over Earth, the Air Force launched a Titan ICBM from Cape Canaveral AF station. The small test MIDAS satellites detected the launch and successfully sent signals to Earth. This development helped our scientists plan on creating better sensors for the MIDAS satellites.

Polaris A1 on the test pad at Cape Canaveral.

Meanwhile on October 23, 1961, tests continued on the newest types of ICBMs, which were submarine-launched. The nuclear submarine USS Ethan Allen successfully fired off a Polaris A2, which was basically an improved Polaris A1. Eventually this missile design would enter srvice before the year was out and was placed on 13 submarines until 1974. This launch stands as the first underwater launch of the Polaris missile, and the tests were successful.

SSBN 608, USS Ethan Allen under way.

The USS Ethan Allen was the first submarine to be designed as a Ballistic Launch Nuclear Submarine. The first sub to launch a Polaris missile was the USS George Washington back in 1960, but that sub was modified from an attack submarine. The Ethan Allen had just completed trials and was commissioned in August 1961, before preparing for the Polaris tests.

Monday, October 24, 2011

New Launch site for Soyuz rockets

Soyuz rocket blasting off from French Guiana. ESA credit.

Russia is no longer limited to launching their Soyuz rockets from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. On October 21st, in partnership with the European Space Agency, a Soyuz rocket lifted off from modified facilities in French Guiana in South America. Sent into orbit were the first two parts of the new European satellite navigation system, called Galileo. The twin IOV (In Orbit Validation) satellites will check and verify the position of other satellites to be placed in the network and test the system.

Twin Galileo IOV's separate.

The launch marks important milestones in the development and use of the Soyuz rockets. This is the first time the Soyuz has been launched outside of Russia's facilities, and strengthens the new working collaboration between Russia and the European Space Agency. This also gives ESA another reliable rocket in its portfolio of space operations.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

50 YA: X-15 Program Leads the Way to Space

Major Robert White in 1961 with the X-15.

Back in 1961, NASA was struggling to get an American into orbit. The Soviet Union had beaten us to that goal, and was making great propaganda from the feat. But while NASA engineers overcame problem after problem with turning the Atlas missile into a launch platform for the Mercury space capsule, there was another program that prepared NASA for flying in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and even into space.

The X-15 rocket plane was an engineering descendent from the X-1 that Chuck Yeager flew to break the Sound Barrier back in 1947. But the X-15 was an incredibly advanced creature compared to our first X-plane. Like the X-1, the X-15 was dropped from a high flying bomber (the B-52) and then ignited its rocket engine to propel it at tremendous speeds as high as it could go. In the atmosphere, the pilot used traditional controls from the stabilizer and elevator controls. But once in the thinnest of air, and even when the craft reached the technical limits of outer space, the X-15 used reaction control jets similar to those placed on the Mercury Capsules. The program started in 1959 and continued through 1969.

X-15 is released from the B-52.

50 years ago, on October 11, 1961 USAF Major Robert White piloted his X-15 to a new altitude record of 217,000 feet (about 40 miles up!). He was traveling at a speed of 3,647 mph. This altitude was so high that he was actually above 99.9 precent of the Earth's air! At that height, he had to rely on the reaction control thrusters. When returning to the Earth, the outer skin of the X-15 heated up to about 900 deegres F.

For those of you at the CMSEC, when you use thrusters to position the spacecraft at our Helm or navigation systems, you're basically flying the simulator in the same way.

From L to R: Robert White, Bill Dana, Neil Armstrong, Joe Engle. All x-15 pilots.

On August 25, 2005 NASA continued presenting Astronaut "Wings" to X-15 pilots. Rob WHite, Joe Engle and Neil Armstrong had already been given theirs, and Bill Dana was being given his when the picture above was taken. Robert White passed away last year, on March 17, 2010. The other pilots in the picture are still alive today. Neil Armstrong you know about. Bill Dana was also a test pilot on F-15s, F-18s, and NASA lifting body test planes that helped develop the Space Shuttle. Joe Engle, like Neil Armstrong, became an astronaut and flew the Test shuttle Enterprise during testing, and later flew on shuttle missions STS-2 (Columbia) and STS-51 I (Discovery).

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

50 YA -Test Launches Continued

Launch of a military Atlas rocket.

From late September to mid October in 1961, there continued a number of tests from the Atlantic Missile Range at Cape Canaveral as the US Air Force worked to improve our strategic missiles. What an exciting time it must have been for the citizens living along the Florida Coast as launch after launch lifted off from the beaches out over the Atlantic Ocean. Besides the notable large rocket launches, there were also small sounding rockets and scientific payloads being tested.

On October 5, 1961 the USAF fired an Atlas ICBM with a dummy warhead over the Atlantic. Flying over 9,000 miles from its launch pad, a data capsule also loaded on top of the rocket safely landed in the waters and was recovered. Although this was a military launch, every use of an Atlas rocket was carefully analyzed for the impact it might have on the upcoming launch of an astronaut into orbit. Remember, the Atlas did not have too stellar a reputation among the Mercury 7 astronauts who had seen a number of these rockets explode.

On October 6, 1961, the USAF launched a Titan I rocket with the mission to test the Titan II guidance system.

Titan 1a.

This early testing of the Titan ICBM was primarily for development of our strategic rocket forces, but once again, the data gained by these tests would have their impact on the manned space program later in the Gemini Program.

Argo D4. Sounds like a Star Wars Droid to me.

Launches didn't only blast off from Cape Canaveral. From NASA's Wallops island facility, sounding rockets like the Argo lifted scientific experiments to learn the effect that electricity plays in the upper atmosphere.

On October 13th, The USAF launched another in its series of Discoverer secret missions. Discoverer 32 lifted off carrying the Agena stage (used as a satellite or stage to carry experiments). Its mission was to improve the space maneuvering capabilities of the Agena craft, test new materials for radiation shielding, and perform some surveillance experiments.

Agena stage.

Discoverer 32 lifted off from Vandenberg AF Base in California. After placing the Agena craft in space, controllers went through their tests and experiments without mishap. On this trip, the Thor rocket made its 100th successful launch!

Thor-Agena rocket at Vandenberg AF Base.

After one day of orbiting, the Agena spacecraft ejected a 300-pound capsule which re-entered the atmosphere, and was recovered off the coast of Hawaii. As it parachuted to the ground, a specially-prepared cargo plane snatched it in mid-air for a secret trip back to base.


Once safely back at the USAF base, the data from the launch stored in the capsule was carefully examined. Only one thing went wrong on this flight. When the technicians examined the large roll of film used to picture our enemies' secret locations, they discovered that 96% of the pictures had been taken out of focus. And you thought YOU've taken bad pictures before...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Playing Dodgeball in Space

Comet Elenin fading. Credit: Michael Mattiazzo

While we wait for the eventual demise of German satellite ROSSAT between the 20th and the 23rd, Earth managed to avoid destruction from the "Doomsday Comet." According to some conspiracy theorists, Comet Elenin was expected to hit the Earth on Sunday the 16th. Well, it must not have been too many conspiracy theorists, because not even I had heard of this one.

Apparently, some of the conspirators believed that the name of the comet, Elenin, was code for ELE, or Extinction Level Event. This ties into something called the Nibiru or Planet X collision. Believers fear that a large planetary body or comet not currently known by astronomers (but known to the ancient astronomers) will come barreling out of the dark and collide with the Earth, or make a near miss, enough to cause tremendous geological damage and threaten the human species.

In actuality, Comet Elenin was discovered in December 2010 by Russian amateur Leonid Elenin. Already very faint, it was estimated to be a long-period comet of only a diameter of about 3-4 kilometers. After a large solar storm in August, the comet was seen to be breaking up and growing much fainter. As it swept around the Sun on September, the break up was figured to be complete and only a cloud of cometary debris was noted. See the top photo for a reduction in brightness.

So, on last Sunday, the remaining debris swept pass the Earth. Only it wasn't even close. It passed by at about the same distance as from Earth to Venus. Here in the SpaceRubble Bunker we didn't even notice.

And yet, I should make note that on my drive home from SLC Saturday night, I witnessed a small fireball meteor descending westward apparently over the Oquirr mountains. Curious timing, that...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Run! Another satellite is falling!

credit: EPA/Barbara Walton

Well, don't panic just yet.

It is true, however, that another satellite is out of control and exepcted to re-enter Earth's atmosphere on October 22nd or 23rd. This time it's the German satellite ROSAT, which was originally launched into space in 1990. This time, though, the scientists have less assurance about where and when it might come down.

ROSAT satellite, artist concept. Credit: German Aerospace Center.

Scientists suspect that quite a bit of this object may survive the fall, so the debris might weigh as much as a ton and a half! They have calculated the odds of a person on Earth being struck by ROSAT debris as 1-in-2000. This is a significantly higher risk than we faced from the falling NASA satellite. Still, the odds that YOU are the one who will be hit are incredibly low. Still, better safe than sorry. Carry a camera with you this week and be ready to take pictures of any crash site, wreckage, or havoc. I'll be hiding safely in the Spacerubble Command Bunker, anxiously awaiting word of calamity. Or, I might just do something useful like plot the destruction of evil alien TellyTubbies (have you SEEN them?).

Warning: Do not take this seriously. While the facts in the article may be correct, there is no cause for alarm unless you are actually struck by debris. Remember that debris from the satellite will not be hot, it will cool by the time it may hit you, but it's the weight of some debris that might squish you tragically. The tone of this article is created for entertainment and in no way represents the opinion of anyone of note. If you are alarmed by the warning nature of this post, please calm down and stop watching the news, disaster movies, or listening to conspiracy theorists. If you ARE hit by debris, wow. Nice knowin' ya.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Space Launch Updates

Past Soyuz launch.

Looks like we've got a go! for launching astronauts again. After the last Soyuz launch which misfired and destroyed the Progress resupply cargo module (no astronauts on board), the Russians and NASA set about investigating the problem and postponing any upcoming launches to the ISS. NASA now accepts Russia's findings and has approved the next launch of a Soyuz to the ISS. Reinforcements for ISS Expedition 29 are now expected to launch on November 14th.

India's PSLV on the Pad.

India launched a satellite in conjunction with the French space program. The Satellite will study the Earth's atmosphere. It was launched on India's PSLV rocket from India.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

International Space Launches

Proton Rocket Blastoff.

Well, it seems the Russians feel everything is safe to resume launches again. International Launch Services (ILS) launched their Russian-made Proton-M rocket to carry a satellite into orbit. Blasting off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, the rocket lifted the QuetzSat-1 communication satellite into orbit for the Mexican government.

Promotional Poster for Mexican Satellite.

A satellite for Europe, the EutelSat, was lifted into orbit on Saturday aboard a Zenit 3SL rocket. This unusual launch occurred thanks to SeaLaunch, a company that uses the sea itself as it's launchpad. From a ship located at the Equator in the Pacific Ocean, the Zenit rocket is lowered into the water from the boat and uses buoyancy and stabilizers to position the rocket for launch.

From the waters of Earth to the vacuum of space...

SeaLaunch recently recovered from bankruptcy to rebuild their company and restart operations again. Looks very successful so far. By using a ship to launch the rocket, SeaLaunch can send its rockets aloft from any water space on the planet and meet its customers' needs.

By far the most impressive launch recently shows that the Chinese are indeed serious about progress in space exploration.

China televised launch of their first space lab.
Credit: Chinese television

Using a Long March 2F rocket, on September 29th China sent up an unmanned space lab module to orbit. The Tiangong-1 lab is not intended for permanent occupation, like the ISS, but will instead be man-tended. Chinese astronauts will practice rendezvous and docking with the lab, and occasionally visit it to keep experiments working. China plans to first send a couple of unmanned capsules to dock with the lab, followed by Shenzou-10, a manned mission, which may include the first Chinese woman astronaut.

Illustration of potential docking.
Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office.

Impact Verdict - A Miss!

Graphic of UARS re-entering atmosphere.
Credit: AGI

Well, it's all over now. The UARS satellite re-entered Earth's atmosphere at about midnight Friday night/Saturday morning the 24th. There was some initial confusion about where the satellite actually came down. Some people reported seeing a glow in the sky off the coast of Washington state. By Tuesday, NASA was able to pinpoint the actual area where pieces would have come down. IN fact, the UARS came down far off shore in the Pacific away from any landmass. It's not likely that anyone actually saw the destruction. There had been some reports of debris landing in Alberta Canada, but these turned out to be hoaxes. Show's over, folks... Move along, nothing to see here...