Saturday, June 30, 2012

China: Shenzhou 9 Returns to Earth

Shenzhou 9 (right) docked with Tiangong 1. China Space Agency art.

After completing several milestones in Chinese space exploration history, the 3-man crew returned to Earth yesterday, landing in Inner Mongolia. The manned spacecraft had docked under automatic controls on June 18. Liu Yang became the first Chinese Woman Taikonaut in their space program. On June 24, the crew boarded the Shenzhou 9 and undocked from the station. They re-docked with the station, performing the first manual docking in their program. On Friday June 29 they undocked for the last time and jettisoned their service and science modules, returning through the atmosphere in the crew module.

View from Tiangong 1 of Shenzhou 9 re-docking with the station on June 24. Credit: CCTV.

Back on Earth, Liu Yang is helped from the hatch of the tipped-over capsule. Credit: Xinhua News Agency.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

50 Years Ago: X-15 speed record, MA-8 news

X-15 Number 1.

Fifty years ago the X-15 program was still in full swing as NASA research manned craft control in the upper thin atmosphere, and the fringes of space. On June 27, 1962 X-15 pilot Joe Walker flew X-15 number 1 to an altitude of 120,000 feet. While firing the rocket motor on his way to that altitude, he managed to fly the craft at Mach 6.09 (4159 mph) while he passed the altitude of 96,000 feet. After casually managing to make this new record speed, Walker continued with his planned tests of steep angle re-entry through the atmosphere.

X-15 pilot Joe Walker.

The height flown in the mission was not the highest. NASA announced on the same day that a previous mission on June 21 had reached the altitude of 247,000 feet. That flight was done by NASA pilot Robert White in X-15 number 3. As the X-15 program continued, new records were being set and great research completed.

Also on this day back in 1962, NASA made an announcement about the next Mercury manned mission. Designated MA-8, the plan was to have the Mercury craft piloted in at least three, and perhaps up to six orbits. The astronaut selected for this mission would be Navy Commander Walter M. Schirra, Jr.

Walter M. Schirra, Jr. "Wally"

Wally Schirra came from Hackensack, New Jersey, and was born into a family deeply involved in aviation. His father had earned his pilot wings during World War 1 in Canada. Both parents became "Barnstormers" between the world wars and entertained crowds with their amazing skills. His mother even did the "wing-walking" stunts! By the time he was 15, Wally could fly his father's plane.

Schirra (right) studies the MA-8 operation plan with Chris Kraft (left). Kraft would be the Mission Control Flight Director during the MA-8 mission.

NASA publicity picture of Walter Schirra in Mercury spacesuit. The suit cooling unit is attached. A model of the Mercury spacecraft and escape tower is posed to the right.

The backup pilot assigned to MA-8 was astronaut L. Gordon Cooper, a Major in the US Air Force. He had been a test pilot at Edwards AF Base testing the F-102 and F-106 jet combat aircraft.

L. Gordon Cooper. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

50 Years Ago: TIROS keeps hunting Hurricanes

TIROS Satellite

When someone asks you why we should spend money on the space program, start by telling them about TIROS. Fifty years ago, as our nation watched television breathlessly for the next manned space launches, the benefits of being able to launch satellites was paying off large dividends. On June 19 NASA launched the TIROS 5 satellite into orbit. The pictures coming from TIROS 4 had been degrading since the middle of June, and only some of its visual data was useful for forecasting. TIROS 5 was expected to relieve the aging TIROS 4 and start helping the nation prepare for the current hurricane season.

TIROS cloud cover map made from TIROS TV imaging.

On June 15, 1962, The US Weather Bureau informed the news agencies that they believed the formation of the first hurricane of the 1962 season would be detected by "one or all of its battery of ships, planes, radar and TIROS weather satellites." In 1961, TIROS 3 had spied hurricane Esther in the Atlantic Ocean just as it was forming. The total 1961 count of watching storms from space had been 5 hurricanes and 1 tropical storm in the Atlantic, and 11 hurricanes and typhoons plus 1 tropical storm in the Pacific. By tracking these storms from space better than storms had ever been tracked before, many lives were saved, property prepared for the storms, and ships at sea diverted.

Thor-Able 4th from left, to right side of Gemini-Titan. I took this picture of NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center Rocket Park on my last trip.

TIROS 5 was sent into space on the Thor-Able rocket from pad LC-17A just as TIROS 4 began experiencing failures. Unfortunately the launch placed the satellite into an elliptical orbit instead of a circular one; nevertheless the pictures from TIROS 5 were excellent at first. TIROS 5 would continue to work for 161 days.

When you consider all the hurricanes and ocean storms that have occurred over the last 50 years, that were tracked and watched from these remote stations in outer space, you begin to realize just how much damage and loss of life could have hit our nation without them. Think also of all the weather forecasting that has increased crop production as well as saved them and you begin to see the enormity of what the space weather satellites have achieved.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Down and Up

X-37 in the hangar after landing. Credit: Boeing/USAF

Last Saturday the US Air Force's super secret (well, not too super secret) X-37 space plane touched down at Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. Although the USAF will not tell us what it's classified mission was, we do know that this fantastic machine has been in space for a year and three months! It's clear to see that the SPace Shuttle is not quite dead yet, as the design lives on in this remarkable spacecraft. Even the heat tiles and structure colors are similar. The tail is a little different... oh, well. This beauty blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida in March 2011 on top of an Atlas 5 rocket (more on that rocket below). During its mission many space fans pondered its purpose and secret mission. Maybe someday we'll find out, but we can reasonably be assured that part of its mission was testing the craft itself in low Earth maneuvers. This is the second X-37 to fly, the first one made a 244-day mission in 2010. That spaceplane will soon be off on another mission.

Blastoff This morning from Cape Canaveral. Credit: ULA

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) sent another classified satellite up into orbit on board an Atlas 5 rocket. This classified mission is designated NROL-38, and some spacewatchers have guessed it may be a communications satellite which will be used to coordinate transmissions from other secret satellites. An educated guess, since there are lots of smart people watching these missions. For me the best part of this mission is that it's the 50th successful launch of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program, or EELV. Besides the Atlas 5, the Delta 4 rocket  has helped to make this series an important NASA transportation system as well as for the Air Force and NRO. The Atlas 5 is calculated to be used for the test launches of the Orion capsule being developed by Lockheed and NASA in a couple of years.

Atlas 5 on the left, Delta 4 on the right.  Credit: ULA.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Chinese First Manned Docking with Space Station

In foreground, Tiangong 1 station obscures the Shenzhou-9 Spacecraft. Credit CCTV.

The Chinese space program completed a major step in their efforts to rival the USA and USSR in space achievements this weekend. It began with the launch of a Long March 2f rocket from the Jiuquan Space Center in the Gansu Province. The Saturday launch in the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft immediately achieved another first for China, as the three-taikonaut crew carried the first Chinese woman to orbit.

Long March rocket roll-out to the pad. Credit: CCTV.

The Long March is carried to the pad by a large crawler, while the crowd gets a great close up view.
Credit: CCTV

Long March at gantry, as support scaffolding moves to embrace it. Chinese Shenzou spacecraft follow Russian Soyuz design, but launch facilities seem to follow Western concepts. Credit: CCTV

Blast off! Credit China Academy of Launch Technology.

After the liftoff on Saturday, the Shenzhou-9 carried the crew to rendezvous with the Tiangong-1 Orbital Module. Previously, an unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft had been remotely piloted to the station and ground controllers had practiced docking procedures. Now, early on Monday morning, the spacecraft docked with a crew of three: Commander Jing Haipeng opened the hatch a few hours later, and was followed inside by Liu Wang.

Inside the module. Hatch opens and Jing Haipeng, on his second spaceflight, waves to the camera. Credit: CCTV

Jing Haipeng approaches the camera while Liu Wang enters the hatch in background.

Admittedly, the interior of the module seems spartan and empty compared to the packed but roomy ISS modules or the often cluttered Russian space stations of the past. Of course the camera lens is allowing a wider view which makes it look a little wider than it actually is, but it still looks nice and orderly in there. Well, let's see how it looks as they get used to working in the module. Meanwhile, China's first woman in space, Liu Yang, remained in the Shenzhou-9 to monitor operations while the module base was established. Eventually she also made her way into the Tiangong-1.

Liu Yang in the cramped Shenzhou cabin. Now, THIS looks more like a Soyuz... Credit:CCTV

The Shenzhou-9 crew inside Tiangong-1, sending greetings to Earth.

Credit is given where credit is due, and the Chinese have certainly performed a great feat in their space efforts with this mission. The people of China must certainly be proud of their accomplishments, and all space buffs are happy to cheer them on and wish them a successful mission. One thing for certain. their TV transmissions were better than the ones that came from the Russian Mir station... ; )

Friday, June 15, 2012

50 Years Ago: First Steps toward a Space Shuttle

Famous MoonWalker with X-15 in 1962.

You may or may not recognize the famous pilot in the picture above. But you certainly would recognize his name. Fifty years ago, NASA and the US Air Force were conducting tests with various test craft that would eventually help us build the Space Shuttle. One of those programs was certainly the X-15. In the picture above, Neil Armstrong stands near the nose of one of the three X-15 test rocket planes. At this point, Armstrong had not yet left the X-15 program to train for being an astronaut, yet he had already flown missions to the edge of our atmosphere.

X-20 DynaSoar mock-up. Credit: Boeing

Beside the X-15, the US Air Force was also working on a potential spacecraft that would glide back to Earth. Designated the X-20 DynaSoar, it would be boosted into space on a rocket, orbit the Earth, dock with a planned orbital space station, then re-enter the atmosphere and glide to a runway landing. Sound familiar? Many of the studies done preparing this spacecraft would be studied by engineers who later designed the Space Shuttle. But in 1962, it was just being developed.

Conceptual art of DynaSoar on Titan booster.

The Titan rocket figured prominently in the studies. Engineers were already preparing to advance from the Atlas rocket to the Titan when NASA would shift from the single-seat Mercury capsule to the double-occupant Gemini capsule. Fifty years ago in June, the USAF was testing how to add power to the Titan by strapping solid-rocket motors to the main body.

Computer art of DynaSoar testing. Credit: DeepCold. Learn more about the DynaSoar program as it could have been by visiting

In June of 1962, Neil Armstrong was reported to be preparing for the DynaSoar missions. Flying an Air Force F-5 fighter jet, he was practice runway landings using data given to him by the DynaSoar engineers. But DynaSoar was not a lasting project for Neil. In the summer of 1962, he was selected with 8 other test pilots as "the New Nine", the second group of astronauts to work in NASA.

Northrop YF-5, prototype test aircraft.

F-5 control panel.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Pegasus takes NuSTAR to orbit

Nose of the Pegasus rocket, with bulbous arm on top. Viewed from the carrier aircraft, the arm holds the rocket in place underneath the fuselage.

At about 10:00 am MDT this morning, NASA's NuSTAR satellite was dropped suddenly from the belly of an L1011 wide-bodied jet. Moments later the Pegasus XL rocket motor ignited, and the rocket soared up into the dark sky.

Ten a.m.? Dark sky? Well, this launch was not your typical launch. The rocket was lifted up from the Kwajalein Island runway in the pacific, while it was still dark in the early morning hours. Operations were broadcast on NASATV on UStream. The operation was managed by Orbital Sciences Corporation. Like SpaceX, Orbital is a private company making its way into space with innovative new technologies. This is not the first flight of the Pegasus, but it's use to place the NuSTAR into orbit is making news this morning.

Computer rendering of Pegasus lifting towards space.

The Lockheed L-1011 jet, designated Stargazer, lifted off about an hour before fropping the rocket. After a fall of about 5 seconds, the Pegasus blasted off toward orbit. Thirteen minutes later the NuSTAR satellite separated. NASA's TDRS tracking system soon was receiving signals from the spacecraft. Engineers will check out the systems for a week before sending the signal for the equipment to deploy.

Computer image of NuSTAR deployed.

NuSTAR is an unusual-looking spacecraft. It houses a special high-energy X-Ray telescope. When the command is given, the lens section will extend on a framework out to 10 meters. NuSTAR will discover and explore black holes, as well as galaxy clusters and super-dense dead stars. Mission control for the NuSTAR operation will be located at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Mission Control screen during launch. The Pegasus is boosting the NuSTAR, 
at the very left lower corner.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Venus Transit today

False-color image of the Sun. Solar Prominences visible along the edges of the horizons.

The big giant ball of nuclear fusion is presenting a special show today. Starting about 4:10 pm MDT (3:10 pm PDT) the planet Venus will slowly traverse (or TRANSIT) the face of the sun. If you still have your solar filters from seeing the recent eclipse, you should be able to see the tiny dot of a planet. Unfortunately, I suspect cloudy skies this afternoon in Utah, but if necessary, I can see it on the Internet.
Astronomy Photo of the day will have live updated images you can check on. Just go to

to see large images of the event. Also, you can watch the event live on NASATV:

Happy Viewing!

Friday, June 1, 2012

New Era in Space Travel

ISS CanadArm releases Dragon cargo spacecraft.

SpaceX Made space history yesterday, and set the path for future commercial activities in space. On Thursday morning, astronauts aboard the ISS used the remote manipulator CanadArm to move an undocked Dragon cargo spacecraft from the U.S. Harmony module. Dragon had just completed its task to be the first commercial (non-government project) spacecraft to deliver supplies to the ISS. However, it was still scheduled for one more task: a safe return to the Earth.

Camera view from CanadArm: "Dragon Flight 001 now departing for California."

The Expedition 31 astronauts and cosmonauts had received 1000 pounds of supplies brought up by the Dragon, after a successful rendezvous and docking procedure that went nearly flawlessly. Then, with the cargo space emptied, they carefully packed in about 1,400 pounds of scientific equipment and samples that needed to be returned to NASA. With the closing of the shuttle program, the ability to bring back equipment (other than tiny packages in a Soyuz capsule) had been lost.

With the hatches aboard Dragon and the ISS sealed, the craft was undocked and the robot arm moved the Dragon gently away from the Harmony module. Upon release, SpaceX mission controls remotely control thrusters to move the Dragon away from the station and lower in orbit. A short time later, the Dragon service module engine began a 9-minute retrofire burn to slow down the Dragon from its speed of 17,500 mph. The service module was then jettisoned and the capsule began orientation to enter the atmosphere.

Artist rendering of Dragon re-entry. Credit: SpaceX.

Dragon began a fiery re-entry over the Indian ocean and proceeded towards the west coast of the USA. The parachutes deployed perfectly and the Dragon splashed down in the Pacific Ocean not far off the coast of Baja California. Recovery vessels soon found the craft and recovered it.

Hoping that Dragons aren't seasick. Credit: SpaceX.

With the successful completion of this test mission to the ISS, SpaceX completes its tests for the government and will now begin regular supply mission to the ISS, returning US space supply capability to our space program. Instead of terribly costly shuttle missions bring supplies to the ISS, NASA can hire out delivery services, saving millions of dollars. This will be the new norm for space exploration in Earth orbit: NASA will lead the way in exploration while private business takes over the routines of supply and travel infrastructure. Of course now it remains for a private company to supply human flight opportunities to low Earth orbit and the ISS. We should see these developments expand during the next few years. SpaceX and other companies are already designing, building, and testing human-rated capsules for use on new and current rocket boosters.