Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Near Miss Asteroid had its own moon

Radar image of Asteroid 2004 BL86 with its small satellite.

The big hunk of rock that zipped by the Earth yesterday morning turns out to have had its own little moon. NASA's Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California took some great radar pictures of the Near-Earth-Orbiting (NEO) asteroids as it made its closest approach to Earth at about 745,000 miles away. That's a little over three times the distance between the Earth and the Moon.

Scientists made good measurements of the asteroid, its moon, and the orbital path around the Sun. The asteroid itself is about 1,100 feet across and the little satellite rock is about 230 feet across. Its current path won't bring it around to us again for a couple hundred years.

Monday, January 26, 2015

SO what was the Emergency on the ISS?

Expedition 42 patch.

There is a very good reason why astronauts spend a lot of their time on maintenance procedures. SPacecraft and space stations like the ISS are very complex machines, with thousands and thousands of parts, some of which wear out and break. These machines also use a lot of important but dangerous chemicals, gases, and fluids to maintain the life-support and propulsion (or station-keeping) systems. On January 14, one of those systems gave NASA a problem.

Mission Control engineers confer on how best to handle the situation.

At the beginning of the astronaut's workday, alarms sounded in the US modules indicating a possible ammonia leak. Ammonia is used to regulate the temperature of the ISS. Leaking ammonia gas could kill the astronauts. Earlier expeditions had replaced one of the ammonia units located outside the station. It's still possible for ammonia to get inside the station, because some of the cooling loops traverse the interior.

InterFace Heat Exchanger (IFHX). Image from NASAspaceflight.com.

While it was possible that there could have been a false indicator signal, safety procedures were followed and the astronauts immediately put the US modules into a safe mode while they donned oxygen masks. Then the crew evacuated to the Russian segments of the station while ground engineers worked with the astronauts to analyze the fault. It was thought that perhaps ammonia was leaking into the station from one of 10 IFHX units. The InterFace HEat Exchange units route ammonia through loops into and out of the station in order to transfer heat to colder areas and then transfer the coolant back into the station. The heat exchangers themselves can be replaced during a spacewalk, but the coolant loops could be more difficult. 

In the end, it turns out that the fault WAS a bad indicator, and after a day of investigation Mission Control gave the green light for astronauts to re-enter the US modules and begin resetting for continued work. NASAspaceflight.com reported that the astronauts had already been ahead of schedule on removing items from the Dragon supply ship, so no important operations were delayed.

Monday, January 12, 2015

SpaceX Launch Success and Failure

Dragon (center) docked at the US Harmony module on the ISS. NASA pic.

SpaceX conducted another successful mission to send the unmanned Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon blasted off from Cape Canaveral's  Launch Complex 40 in Florida, lifting off at 4:47 a.m. Eastern time. It was originally scheduled to launch last Tuesday, but a small mechanical problem. After a two and a half minute ascent, the first stage separated and the second stage propelled the Dragon into orbit.

Current configuration of spacecraft docked with the ISS. NASA illustration. Parked spaceships represent American (Dragon), European (ATV), and Russian (Progress) unmanned cargo ships and two Russian manned spacecraft (Soyuz).

The Dragon was carefully maneuvered through orbiting thrusters to rendezvous with the ISS, where astronauts used a robotic arm to grapple the craft and pull it to the docking hatch, where docking was achieved just after 6 a.m. Mountain time this morning. Astronauts will carefully equalize the pressures in the craft and the iSS and will later begin unloading cargo and supplies. Meanwhile, ground engineers from SpaceX will be checking out the craft's systems and reviewing flight performance. You can read a very detailed account of the launch and docking at NASAspaceflight.com.

SpaceX illustration of the Falcon 9 first stage in powered descent.

Although the flight of the Dragon went well, the return of the Falcon 9 first stage did not end well. This flight was also an experiment by SpaceX, in which the first stage would slow descent and use landing engines to soft land on the pad of a specially constructed SpaceX recovery ship out in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX has had several successful test flights where the stage returned to a land based pad in Texas, extending landing legs and touching down softly on the pad. This was to be a first attempt to do so on the recovery ship. However, the stage made its approach a bit too fast and ended up being severely wrecked on the ship pad. SpaceX will analyze the attempt and make new corrections and try again at a later date.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

50 Years Ago: Preparing for Gemini

Astronauts John Young (left) and Gus Grissom (Center) inspect the Gemini 3 mission simulator with a NASA official. Gemini would be the first two-man mission for the USA.

Fifty years ago NASA personnel were very busy preparing for the next manned flight series, Project Gemini. Astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young (part of the "new nine" group of astronaut candidates) would pilot Gemini-3 on its first project mission in the Spring. On January 1st, about 500 personnel were transferred from Manned Space Flight Center's Florida operations to the newly created Kennedy Space Center in preparation for growing the Gemini and Apollo manned space operations. WHile the Gemini manned flights would begin this year, Apollo program operations would increase with additional rocket testing and launches.

NASA illustration comparing the sizes of the three main spacecraft. Bottom left is the Gemini 2-man capsule. Above it is the Mercury spacecraft which held only one astronaut. To the right is the planned Apollo capsule, expected to carry three astronauts on a two-week mission to the Moon.

On January 4th, the Gemini-3 capsule which would be used in the upcoming flight was delivered to Kennedy Space Center to be prepared for the Titan 2 rocket. The astronauts continued their preparations for the mission by conducting flight simulations, water landing escape training, and constant work with the mechanical and electronic spacecraft systems. They also had a huge burden of conducting press interviews, public appearances, and promotional events for the NASA space program.

Water egress training for Gemini-3 astronauts and the backup crew.

Training in the Gemini-3 mission simulator.

Post-flight inspection of Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7. From L-R: John Glenn, President Kennedy, Vice-President Johnson.

In other astronaut news, Mercury program astronaut John Glenn retired from the Marine Corps on January 4. It had been known that White House officials and the President himself had been very concerned during the Mercury orbital flight when John's spacecraft was thought to have a heat shield problem, and there were concerns that Glenn should not fly again to avoid the potential  of losing America's first orbiting astronaut in an accident. With doubts about future flights in mind, Glenn retired and signed on to support NASA as a consultant. He also received a position on the board of the Royal Crown Cola Company (which no doubt included a substantial increase in monetary compensation compared to working for NASA and the Marine Corps!). 

Mariner IV space probe.

Manned spaceflight was not the only exciting program for NASA. The spacecraft Mariner IV was on its way to Mars. Mariner IV had blasted off from Launch Complex 12 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on November 28. Lifted into space by an Atlas rocket and Agena-D second stage, the craft was designed to fly by the Red Planet and take the first pictures of its surface.

Mariner IV launch from Pad 12.

Originally the mission involved two spacecraft. Mariner 3 had launched just earlier on November 5, but the protective shroud over the probe had failed to deploy properly and so the Mariner 3 spacecraft did not reach Mars. So it was now solely up to Mariner 4. On January 3rd, the craft was operating well and had completed 63 million miles in its journey to Mars. The craft performed its first self-intiated command to change frequency rates for the long trip to the planet.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Upcoming NASA events for 2015

Dragon cargo spacecraft approaches the ISS in a computer rendition.

Looking ahead to the events in 2015, we can find definite progress to that happy day when the USA finally gets its own manned rockets to orbit. We still have a couple of years wait, though. For now, we look forward to a launch of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft on January 6, which will rendezvous with the International Space Station and the current members of Expedition 42. Scheduled times for launch and TV coverage found at NASA's site: https://blogs.nasa.gov/spacestation/2014/12/31/happy-new-year-16-times-on-space-station/

Space explorer DAWN approaches the minor planet Ceres. NASA computer illustration.

With the agency's current White House mandate to prepare for a trip to send humans to rendezvous with an asteroid (whether that actually happens still is up in the air), it's interesting to find NASA's DAWN spacecraft just about to rendezvous with the asteroid-now-minor-planet Ceres. The spacecraft had just recently been on the other side of the Sun from Earth, but has now cleared the blocking solar disk and NASA can prepare the craft for its final approach to the Texas-sized dwarf planet. Zooming towards Ceres at 450 mph, the craft will arrive on schedule on March 6th. You can read more about the mission at NASA's site: http://www.nasa.gov/jpl/dawn/dawn-spacecraft-begins-approach-to-dwarf-planet-ceres/index.html#.VKa73yjqG0J

SMAP images soil moisture. NASA image.

NASA will continue it's White House mandated efforts to study carbon dioxide, Earth global warming, and support Earth-oriented missions. On January 29, NASA will launch SMAP, the Soil Moisture Active Passive instrument designed to study the amount of moisture in the Earth's soil. This will be the 5th Earth Science mission launch within the last 12 months. You can read about SMAP's mission here: http://www.nasa.gov/jpl/smap/technology-innovations-spin-nasas-smap-into-space/index.html#.VKa8yCjqG0J

Computer art of Cygnus craft at ISS.

Since the explosion of the Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft at Wallops Island last October, parent company Orbital has been busy making repairs to the launch pad and working to clean up environmental contaminants on the beach. It's estimated that Orbital will be ready to launch Cygnus again, perhaps this time on an Atlas V rocket, by end of December 2015. A new version of the Antares rocket will be testing by then.

Dragon V2 on left, CST-100 on right. NASAspaceflight.com combined image.

With NASA"s approval last month for Dragon to proceed with it's manned capsule testing, the Commercial Crewed Vehicle program continues through 2015 between both SpaceX and Boeing. Boeing continues testing it's CST100 capsule and SpaceX will now start testing the actual Dragon2 articles and escape systems. 2015 will be an important year for testing. For now though, we continue to spend millions and missions of dollars on rides with the Russians.

Russian spacecraft docked at ISS. Older picture from 2009. Doesn't look a whole lot different now.

Up in space, Expedition 42 continues to perform experiments, do science, maintain the ISS, and this year they will continue preparations to move some modules around to accommodate the future docking of the commercial spaceships. We can also look forward to a year-long experiment when astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko  join the ISS team later in 2015 to spend an entire year aboard the station. 

And of course, space activities will be plentiful each month. We can look forward to monthly launches from Russia, China, European Space Agency, India, Japan, and of course the USA.