Monday, December 31, 2012

50 Years Ago: Mariner II at Venus

Mariner Space Probe illustration.

On this last day of 2012, I'm trying to catch up on some 50 years ago items from 1962. On december 14, 1962, the Mariner 2 space probe made its closest pass to the planet Venus. Closing to about 41,000 km, the encounter was also the first time a planetary probe had reached another planet. Mariner 2 had had several problems along the way, but the durability of the craft came through and gave the world new information about our sister planet.

The data radioed back from Mariner confirmed scientists' estimates of the incredibly hot temperatures and the thick atmosphere of the planet. It also determined that the temperature was fairly evenly distributed around the entire globe. Experiments searching for a magnetic field came up empty, meaning Venus either had a very tiny magnetic field or there wasn't one. Other interesting discoveries showed that Venus had a slow rotation that was in the opposite direction from that of Earth's and that there was no radiation belt like our own Van Allen Belt.

Mariner 2 continued on past Venus into an orbit around the Sun. It was last heard from on January 3, 1963, and is still out there today....

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Rocket and Spaceflight updates

Ebb and Flow, the twin GRAIL satellites over the Moon.

SpaceX made further progress on its Grasshopper rocket program on December 17. In a 29-second flight, the 10-story tall Grasshopper rocket (a Falcon 9 first stage with Merlin engine) made a 40 meter flight up, then hovered, and then landed safely in the upright position! Watch the cool video on Parabolic Arc's website here:

CBC/Canada has a good article on the docking of Soyuz TMA-07M at the ISS.  Crewmember Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, will become the Expedition 35 commander in March:

CollectSace published a nice article about the end of the GRAIL mission over the Moon. The twin satellites Ebb and Flow made a planned crash into the lunar surface on December 17. Information about their incredible mission here:

A new LANDSAT satellite is on its way to the Vandenberg AFB in California for an upcoming flight.  The LANDSAT 5 satellite will be decommissioned in a few more months.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Team 34 B on the way to ISS

Blast off of the TMA-07M Soyuz rocket and spacecraft.

Help is on the way for the three current crew of the International Space Station. This morning at 5:12 am MST, a Russian rocket blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The spacecraft is on a two-day orbit path to intersect and dock with the ISS on Friday. On board are astronauts Chris Hadfield, Tom Marshburn, and cosmonaut Roman Romanenko. When Expedition 35 begins in March 2013. Canadian Chris Hadfield will become the station commander.

Currently, the expedition 34 team on ISS is Commander Kevin Ford, and flight engineers Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Missed Me! Missed Me!

Asteroid Toutatis radar images.

This last week saw a flurry of asteroid watch action as several rocky bodies passed close to the Earth. Well, relatively speaking.  On December 11, not one but THREE asteroids made scientists take notice. 

Zip! There it goes! 2012 XE54 is spotted.

First on the list was 2012 XE54, a small bodied rock about 36 meters in size, passed within the Earth-Moon distance, a little over 60% of the distance. Not Earth-shattering, but big enough to possibly cause a Tunguska-like event if it had hit us. Scary note here: this was a recently-discovered asteroid, which shows you that there are dangerous steroids out there that we DON'T know about yet.

Next up was 2012 XL55, about half the size of XE54, but it wasn't as close... just a mere 4.2 times the distance from Earth to Moon (which itself is 240,000+ miles away). And on it's heels was 2009 BS5, just a little bit smaller, but twice as far away.

Then came the big show on the 12th. Asteroid 4179 Toutatis is an old friend, first discovered in 1934. It has a somewhat erratic orbit that actually crosses the orbit of Mars as well as Earth's, and is influenced by the gravity of Jupiter. It comes closer to earth about every four years. Radar images show it to be like a peanut shell in shape, with two lobes. It's greatest length is about 4.2 kilometers, making rather large actually.  On December 13th, a Chinese space probe made a close pass to Toutatis. You can find all about that encounter here on SpaceRef:

Toutatis came by at about 18 Lunar Distances. It is expected to make a really close pass in 2069!

Monday, December 3, 2012

50 Years Ago: Mariner II in Trouble

Art of the Mariner II probe to Venus.

Was the Mariner mission to Venus a cursed mission? Some people were wondering that during the end of November in 1962. The Mariner mission to Venus was intended to succeed in receiving signals from a probe near Venus, make sensor readings of the planet as the probe passed by, and detect any magnetic fields around the planet. Mariner 1 was destroyed when a malfunctioning Atlas rocket veered off course in July 1962, forcing the range officer to push the self-destruct button. Mariner w, an exact copy of the first, launched on August 27, 1962. On September 4, engineers were surprised when the craft lost its lock on the Sun briefly while the craft was making a mid-course correction. Thankfully, lock was re-acquired and Mariner proceeded on its way, On its journey, the craft measured the solar wind, detected interplanetary dust, and detected high-energy particles coming from Solar Flares.

Twice during the voyage, the craft suddenly turned off scientific instruments and activated emergency gyroscopes. Navigational lock was lost briefly, then reacquired and instruments turned back on. Scientists speculated that perhaps the craft had been hit by micrometeorites.

Coming into November, one of the solar panels providing energy to the craft began to flirt with breakdown. Finally on November 15, the panel shut down completely. Fortunately the craft was close enough to the Sun now to receive more energy, so instruments were not impacted and the craft continued on its journey, expecting to arrive in December. Still, some scientists had to be wondering, What Next?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Future Aerospace: LAPCAT concept

A Mach 5 Jet design. Credit: Reaction Engines

A British company is moving towards the future of high speed air transport. The LAPCAT concept envisions a new engine design, SCIMITAR, to propel an aircraft up to mach 5 in order to reach the other side of the world in 2 to 4 hours. Reaction Engines designed the engines to use their heat exchange technology to super-cool the engines as they heat from the tremendous thrust. What intrigues me is the possibility of using this design as an atmospheric boost for a low-orbit rocket plane which could then return to Earth on its own.

For more information including engine cutaway and video, check out Parabolic Arc's article at

Enjoy the future!