Tuesday, November 29, 2011

50 YA: Enos the Chimp Goes to Space

MA-5 lifts off from Cape Canaveral.

Fifty years ago, NASA launched its last test of a Mercury-Atlas rocket before placing a human in orbit. MA-5 blasted off from Launch Complex 14 at 8 am MST on November 29, 1961. Engineers had been preparing this flight for 40 weeks. It seems that as new technology continued to improve, the mission of MA-5 kept changing. Finally it was decided to test the capsule with a live occupant. But instead of an astronaut, a chimpanzee was placed aboard.

Enos in his space couch.

Until the flight of MA-5, the most famous space chimp was Sam, who had flown in a test of the Mercury-Redstone rocket before Alan Shepard flew his mission. This time the task fell to Enos, which means "man" in the Hebrew language. Five hours before liftoff, Enos was secured into his spacesuit-couch and placed in the capsule. The launch went well and Enos was placed into orbit.

However, once in orbit, things "went south". The attitude control system malfunctioned. The auto correction thrusters were engaged 9 times to keep the craft in proper attitude before retrofire. The environmental control system also malfunctioned, and the capsule began heating up inside. Enos' body temperature reached 100.5 degrees F and mission controllers worried about the health of the chimp. Then the environmental system corrected itself and normal temperature was restored. Because the thruster problem was using up fuel, it was determined to bring back the capsule after the 2nd orbit. The capsule splashed down in the Pacific off the coast of California. After search planes spotted the craft bobbing on the waters, the destroyer USS Stormes retrieved the capsule and extracted Enos the Space Chimp.

With the success of MA-5, the qualifications had been met for the launch of humans aboard the Atlas rocket, and preparations began for the launch of the first American to orbit the Earth. As for Enos, the brave animal passed away about a year later after contracting a form of dysentery.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Foreign Affairs: Russian Curse vs. Chinese Success

Phobos-Grunt being prepared for launch.

Russia continues to suffer under a curse. The Phobos-Grunt satellite, launched on November 9, remains in Earth orbit suffering a profound silence. The Zenit rocket carrying Phobos-Grunt had placed the exploration robot in a temporary orbit before heading out towards Mars and the Martian moon Phobos. However, the necessary signals to send the craft outward from Earth did not ignite the engines and the craft went silent. Russian and international scientists have struggled intensely to repair communications in the last couple of weeks. Suddenly, a signal got through a few days before Thanksgiving, and there was some hope communications could be restored as telemetry got through on our holiday. Thanks should be given to technicians at the European Space Agency station near Perth in Australia. Sadly, this success was not repeated and the robotic explorer remains silent now.

Phobos-Grunt launches on a Zenit rocket.

Recently Russia has had some mishaps with the Soyuz rocket series, prompting a temporary grounding of spaceflights to the ISS while engineers worked to solve the problem. With the success of recent launches to ISS, the problem seemed solved, but now the Phobos- Grunt satellite remains stranded in orbit, with the fear that it could crash back to Earth with a significant supply of toxic fuel on board.

This was Russia's 4th attempt to reach Mars. It had not launched an interplanetary probe in 15 years. The other three launches to Mars also met with failure. In 1988, Russia sent Phobos 1 and Phobos 2 to reach the planet. Phobos 1 failed soon after launch. Phobos 2 reached MArtian orbit, only to go suddenly silent and was never heard from again. In 1996, the launch of a Mars probe went wrong and the satellite crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Are the Russians cursed when it comes to reaching Mars? Actually it goes to prove how difficult an interplanetary probe mission really is, and how amazing the American results have been.

Meanwhile, China keeps launching satellites with uneventful regularity.

Long March 2D blasts off from China.

So far this year, China has made 15 satellite launches, and only one was a failure. China usually uses the Long March 2D rocket. Years ago China would have suffered more failures, but since their "acquisition" of American rocket and satellite technology from Loreal and other American space firms, they have had a much higher success rate. While some of the technology was improperly transfered to China as a result of Clinton administration "deals", some has been determined to be lost to China as a result of Chinese computer hacking and corporate spying.

This week China launched 2 satellites from the Jinquan Satellite Launch Center, testing new technologies and observing environmental situations in China.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

MSL on its way to Mars!

Atlas V liftoff from Launch Complex 41.

At 8:02 a.m. MST, NASA ignited the engines of the Atlas V rocket carrying the MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) on its way to Mars. The launch has proceeded very well so far, with the separation of the nose cone fairings. The second stage Centaur rocket is expected to fire at about 8:45 a.m. (Update: Stage firing and spacecraft separation confirmed - MSL is on its way to MARS!).

MSL rover in the lab with scientists.

The MSL rover (named Curiosity) is the largest that has been sent to Mars. Its wide variety of sensors and controls will enable it to explore terrain unaccessible to prior rovers such as Spirit, Opportunity and Pathfinder. Scheduled to land on Mars in August 2012, Curiosity is expected to run a mission length of 23-24 months. Those of you who have been watching Mars rovers so far understand that the craft may last MUCH longer than that.

You can download a PDF fact sheet from NASA at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/fact_sheets/mars-science-laboratory.pdf

Friday, November 25, 2011

50 YA: Ranger 2 flubs, USAF tests Titan

Atlas-Agena launch.

Fifty years ago, launches continued from the Cape Canaveral pads. NASA launched Ranger 2 on an Atlas-Agena rocket combination on November 18, 1961. Ranger's 2 mission was to test the electronics of experiments that would later be sent to study other planets, and to also send back information on space radiation and magnetic fields. Scientists hoped to discover clues about a possible trail of hydrogen gas following behind the Earth as it orbited the Sun.

Ranger 2 at NASA Glen Research Center.

The Atlas rocket successfully placed Ranger 2 in orbit around the Earth, but disaster followed. The Agena second stage failed to ignite, due to a malfunctioning gyro. Ranger 2 was unable to be placed in the orbit necessary for the tests, and after separation it was stranded in an orbit that brought it closer and closer to Earth's atmosphere. It burned up two days later.

Titan 1 ICBM launch.

On November 21, 1961, a Titan 1a ICBM missile test was conducted by the USAF from its Canaveral site. This missile launched a special nose cone that would later be used in anti-missile missile tests with the Nike-Zeus system.

The next day, the military launched a mysterious satellite from Point Arguello in California. The rocket used was the Atlas-Agena combo. I still have not found out anything about this mysterious launch. It is recorded as the first "unannounced" rocket launch of a satellite.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Expedition 29 lands safely

Commander Mike Fossum happy to be on the ground. Not used to gravity after 5 months in Zero-G!

After 167 days in orbit and on the ISS, US astronaut Mike Fossum, Japanese astronaut Satosji Furukawa and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov returned to Earth in their Soyuz capsule. They landed in a snowy field in the steppes of Kazakhstan.
The landing site. Auto headlights illuminate the landing area. Dark splash on right is where the Soyuz touched down, and the capsule is a bit to the left of that spot.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The New Mobile Launcher

The giant Crawler takes the ML out to Pad 39B.

In a scene reminiscent of the glory days of the Saturn V launches to the Moon, a giant launch tower is again seen moving to the pads. NASA engineers have moved the huge 355 foot tall tower to Launch Complex 39B to test how the new structure responds to the stresses of moving on the large Transport Crawler.

The ML tower was originally constructed for use with the Aries 1 rocket, which was cancelled three years ago by the Obama administration. Three years after its cancellation, the project is again alive thanks to Congressional intervention. During the last year, Congress has passed laws requiring NASA to design and build a new heavy-lift rocket to replace the lifting capacity of the cancelled Space Shuttle program. The new rocket is designated (for now) as the SLS, standing for Space Launch System. There's a creative, catchy name for you, eh? Despite my sarcastic response to the name, the new system will provide the United States with a rocket capable of lifting large satellites and spacecraft into orbit and beyond to the Moon and the asteroids.

Currently the ML tower stands at a total height or 400 feet while on the tremendous transporter. The trip from the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) to Pad 39B takes about 14 hours and travels 4.2 miles. The tower weighs in at a wopping 6.5 million pounds. It currently does not yet have the swinging arm bridges that will allow engineers to access parts of future rockets along its length.

Pad 39B is also going through changes. The old towers that serviced many shuttle flights have been torn down, and new structures are building in its stead in preparation for the new ML series of towers. In fact, the base of the ML will need enlargement for exhaust, as it was originally designed to work with the thinner Aries rocket. The new SLS will be wider at the base and include side-mounted Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs, like the shuttle had).

My hope is that the shuttle towers will be broken into small pieces for sale to space collectors like myself. I currently own a piece of the gantry from Launch Complex 26, from which the historic Explorer 1 satellite (America's first successful space satellite) launched atop a Jupiter rocket in 1958. I would love to add a remnant of the space shuttle era to my collection.

Launch of Ares 1-x in 2008. This was the test rocket for the cancelled Ares series of rockets, launched from Pad 39B to test the marriage of the SRB as a first stage with a second stage test structure. The temporary tower used at the pad will be replaced with the ML Tower structures.

Friday, November 18, 2011

2 Space Station Updates

Soyuz rocket blasting off in snowstorm.

Two international dockings this week made the news. Our first story is the return of human spaceflight to Russian space Operations, as a successful Soyuz launch was made to the ISS. On board the TMA-22 Soyuz spacecraft were two cosmonauts and an astronaut of Expedition 29. Even though the launch occurred during a snowstorm, the spacecraft successfully made it to the ISS and docked to the Russian Poisk module on Wednesday.

Expedition 29 all together now.

Cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoly Ivanishin and astronaut Dan Burbank join the rest of the Expedition 29 team for a six month stay aboard the station. Burbank is in the middle of the front crewmembers in the photo. Station Commander Mike Fossum (middle in back row), astronaut Satoshi Furukawa (left back row) and cosmonaut Sergei Volkov (right back row) will return to Earth next week. Another group of three astronauts will launch to the station in December.

Meanwhile, the Chinese have been continuing their tests with their Tiangong-1 space module which acts as a remote-control station for practice purposes.

Tiangon-1 (left) and Shenzou-8 (right)

Chinese ground controllers have been practicing undocking and redocking the Shenzou-8 spacecraft. No Taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) are on either craft. Notice the Shenzou-8 (right side of picture) looks remarkably like a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Why start from scratch when you can borrow (?) from something that has worked well for decades. The Chinese are actually doing very well and making good progress in their goal to establish an inhabited space station and then press on to the Moon. Certainly they have benefited from the American and Russian technology. Sure would be nice if they paid for the use of those patents, though.

Recovering the landed Shenzou-8.

Like the Russian Soyuz, the Chinese Shenzou spacecraft land in an open wilderness for recovery. In this case, Inner Mongolia. It had undocked from Tiangong-1 on Wednesday and returned to Earth on Wednesday. It is expected that Taikonauts will be on either the next flight to the station or for certain the third flight up.

Picture credits NASA and Chinese Space Agency.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Here Comes A BIG One!

Radar image of 2005 YU55.

It's time for watching the skies again, as a large asteroid passes pretty close to the Earth. Asteroid 2005 YU55 is expected to zoom past our planet at about 4:28 p.m. Mountain Time this afternoon. By Pretty Close I mean Pretty Close. Many close calls are actually several times the distance between the Earth and Moon, but this one will actually come closer to Earth than the Moon does!

Scientists have been closely tracking this asteroid with radar-imaging telescopes to precisely verify its trajectory and speed. We should be quite safe, as its orbit around the Sun has already been established. This gives researchers a chance to observe a close up asteroid and learn more about the dangers that could be posed to the Earth by these close misses.

You see, this isn't some little po-dunk bus-sized little rock, this one is as big as an aircraft carrier! Yes, it would survive going through the atmosphere and smack us good, but it looks like it will miss (phew!)

The last time a rock this size passed this close to the Earth (about 200,000 miles away) was in 1976. That pass by was undetected until scientists caught it going away (lucky us). The next approach of an object this big won't be until about 2028.

2005 YU55 will continue on past us and continue circling the Sun, passing by the Earth, Venus and Mars.

Down here in the Bunker we are glad that our scientists will get such a close opportunity to study and analyze the enemy's weapons. Should this have hit the Earth, the damage would have been quite appreciable, creating a crater larger than that found at Meteor Crater in Arizona. Celebrate the Near-Miss with a toast to the Near-Earth-Observations Program at JPL and NASA. The more we learn about these objects, the safer we can be in the War against the Comet Empire and their Allies, the Asteroids.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Dockings in space

Steady... steady... careful now...

On Wednesday morning November 2, Progress 45, a robotic cargo delivery spacecraft, approached the International Space Station and successfully docked to the Russian PIRS module. Supplies included food, fuel, oxygen, water, and electronic supplies. I'm sure what the astronauts of Expedition 29 were REALLY waiting for were the 2 Apple iPads that were stored on board!

THis docking brings a sigh of relief from Russian space program managers, who were no doubt worried to death after the failure of the last Progress mission. That crash resulted in a delay of the Progress missions. Looks like the bugs have been worked out... for now.

Steady... steady... careful now...

Celebrations in China this week as a major milestone has been achieved for the Chinese SPace Program. Earlier this year, China launched the Tiangong-1 science module, basically a mini-space station. Tee T-1 will be used for practice in rendezvous and docking practice, and later next year Chinese Astronauts will actually dock with the spacecraft. In this event, a Shenzhou-8 Space ship robotically docked with the T-1 module. China is continuing to make strides forward in their development. No doubt this is due to all the scientific help we have either given them or they have stolen. I do not make that claim lightly.