August 16, 2012

NASA Radiation Belt Storm Probe to Launch on Thursday at Cape Canaveral Spaceport (Source: NASA)
The Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission is scheduled to launch next Thursday, August 23, on an Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The launch window opens at 4:08 a.m. EDT and closes at 4:28 a.m. EDT. The RBSP mission is made up of two identical probes that will study the Van Allen Radiation Belts, two concentric, donut-shaped rings of high-energy particles that surround Earth. Data from the probes will help us understand this major feature of the Earth’s magnetosphere and the interactions between the sun and Earth. (8/16)

Nuclear Generator Powers Curiosity Mars Mission (Source: Technology Review)
When the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars, a specially designed nuclear generator kicked into action. Previous Mars missions have relied on solar panels to power the rovers, but exploration was slowed down by dust build-up on the solar panels or short winters days with little sunlight. The Curiosity Rover, which is as big as a car, is also significantly larger and ten times heavier than previous Martian rovers.

Enter the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTP, an energy source that relies on the heat generated by decaying plutonium dioxide to run Curiosity. It’s designed to run almost two Earth years. The MMRTP delivers both heat and 110 watts of steady electric power from an array of iridium capsules holding a ceramic form of plutonium dioxide. The heat is piped through the Curiosity carried by liquid Freon. Thermoelectric devices on the generator convert the heat into electricity with no moving parts. Idaho National Laboratory, which designed and tested the energy system, says it can operate for years. (8/7)

Rebooted Space Congress Changes with Industry (Source: Florida Today)
Eight years after space experts, astronauts and other influential people in aerospace gathered for what turned out to be the last Space Congress, organizers are attempting to revive the program. A leaner version of past gatherings will reflect the changing landscape of the space industry in Brevard County, one that still involves government support of programs but also recognizes a growing private sector influence. Organizers have announced a Space Congress will be held Dec. 7.

“We’re expecting 100 to 150 coming to the event, as opposed to twice that number before,” said Frederick Martin, general chairman of the new Space Congress. “And it’s going to be one day instead of three... We’re starting over is what we’re doing,” Martin added. Once considered the world's premier aerospace conference, the Space Congress made its debut in 1962 and was staged annually by the Canaveral Council of Technical Societies.

Then, in 2005, the congress was combined with the Cape Canaveral Spaceport Symposium. In 2006, the joint event was moved to Orlando and subsequently canceled. An attempt to revive Space Congress in 2007 never materialized. Restarting Space Congress in a modest way may be the key to its future success. “It’s the right size, and it’s the right price, and the right time,” Martin said. (8/16)

Capsule Survives Copenhagen Suborbitals Test – Mostly (Source: Space Safety)
On August 12, Copenhagen Suborbitals conducted a scheduled test of their Tycho Deep Space Capsule launch escape system. The launch went according to plan, but not so the landing. The spacecraft went into a tumble before dropping the capsule into the Baltic Sea at shield-crunching speeds. “We had perfect launch, but quickly the entire configuration began to tumble,” said Kristian von Bengtson, co-founder of Copenhagen Suborbitals. “The main chutes clearly did not have complete deployment and the capsule hit water in high speed, buckling the bottom shield.”

Copenhagen Suborbitals is a do-it-yourself initiative that was started in 2008 to send its founders – von Bengston and Peter Madsen - to space. All components are built from their own designs, with the help of volunteers and fueled by donations. Following their July 27 test of the unmanned two stage SMARAGD-1 which went slightly off plan when the nose cone snapped, von Bengtson expressed reservations about the then-upcoming launch escape system. Among the problems he highlighted was the ability of the 8 meter craft to hold together if the trajectory were to go into a tumble, which is pretty much what happened in the live test. (8/15)

NASA and NSF Laud New NRC Decadal Survey on Solar and Space Physics (Source: Space Policy Online)
Just over a week away from the launch of NASA's next heliophysics mission, the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP), the National Research Council (NRC) today released its second Decadal Survey for that field of space science. So far, reaction from the study's sponsors is very positive. NRC Decadal Surveys lay out the top science questions in various scientific disciplines, and missions NASA or other agencies should conduct to answer them, over the next 10 years. The NRC studies are conducted about every 10 years, a decade, hence the term "decadal."

This is the second report for the discipline that studies the sun and its influence on the Earth and the rest of the solar system. NASA currently refers to this field of science as heliophysics, though it has been called solar and space physics or solar-terrestrial physics in the past. Each formulation has nuanced differences. The NRC calls it solar and space physics. The first solar and space physics Decadal Survey was issued in 2003.

The committee was "highly cognizant" of the current budget constrained environment when recommending missions to achieve the four key goals identified in the report: a) establish the origin of the sun's activity and predict variations in the space environment; b) determine the dynamics and coupling of Earth's magnetosphere, ionosphere, and atmosphere and their response to solar and terrestrial inputs; c) understand the interaction of the sun with the solar system and the interstellar medium; and d) discover and characterize fundamental processes that occur both within the heliosphere and throughout the universe. Click here. (8/15)

NASA, Orbital Minimize Impact of Dawn Glitch (Source: Space News)
NASA’s Dawn asteroid-belt probe will skip some bonus observations of one object, Vesta, and delay its departure for another, Ceres, by about 10 days because of a balky reaction wheel, the mission’s chief engineer said Aug. 14. “The reaction wheel misbehavior occurred on Aug. 8, so that delays us by about nine or 10 days,” Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, said. “So escape [from Vesta] will be approximately Sept. 4.” (8/15)

Unmanned Military Aircraft Fails in Mach 6 Attempt (Source: AP)
An unmanned experimental aircraft failed during an attempt to fly at six times the speed of sound in the latest setback for hypersonic flight. The X-51A Waverider was designed to reach Mach 6, or 3,600 mph, after being dropped by a B-52 bomber off the Southern California coast on Tuesday. Engineers hoped it would sustain its top speed for five minutes, twice as long as an X-51A has gone before. But the Air Force said Wednesday that a faulty control fin prevented it from starting its exotic scramjet engine and it was lost. (8/15)

Top Space Official Resigns Following Failed Launch (Source: Moscow Times)
The head of one of the country's leading space firms has resigned from his post following a series of mishaps involving engines produced by his firm. Vladimir Nesterov, 63, formerly head of the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, submitted his resignation letter in connection with the failed launch of two satellites earlier this month. The resignation of Nesterov, who headed the space company that produces space equipment including Proton rocket boosters, comes shortly after Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that those responsible for the failures would be punished.

Medvedev said that 10 botched satellite launches had taken place over the past year and a half. "Nothing of this kind happens anywhere in the world," he said. The Khrunichev center was responsible for designing the Briz upper-stage engines that failed to lift two telecommunications satellites into orbit Aug. 6. The Russian government is planning to invest 650 billion rubles ($20.3 million) in the country's space industry by 2015. Space flight was earlier identified as a key economic priority during Medvedev's presidency. (8/16)

The Coming U.S.-China Space Race (Source: The Diplomat)
The foreign policy peanut gallery had a field day after Curiosity's landing. The Telegraph paraphrased one Mars expert as suggesting that the untimely loss of Curiosity “could have meant effectively an end to the U.S. venturing into space for at least a generation, and the keys to the solar system would have been handed to the Chinese.” The paper added: “But for now, the Red Planet is firmly in American hands.”

A little self-congratulation is warranted; this was a truly historic occasion. But in such stark terms, these statements hint at shaken U.S. confidence and self-reassurance both on Earth and in the heavens. The contrast between Curiosity’s success and the failure of the Phobos-Grunt mission – on which China’s Yinghuo-1 rover was bound for a Martian moon – is striking. In other words, “Curiosity’s success is also likely to prevent the Chinese accepting America’s offer to collaborate on future Mars missions.”

As early as 2003 prescient analysts predicted that the U.S. and China were “on the threshold of a space race that could radically influence international security.” Dr. John Hickman issued a stark warning about China’s lunar ambitions, suggesting that a future Chinese space base was probable due to loopholes in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Even if decades away, a future where great powers are scrambling to colonize space, largely fueled by an Asian space race, is more plausible than we might imagine. (8/16)

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Detects Helium in Moon's Atmosphere (Source: SwRI)
Scientists using the Lyman Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) aboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have made the first spectroscopic observations of the noble gas helium in the tenuous atmosphere surrounding the Moon. These remote-sensing observations complement in-situ measurements taken in 1972 by the Lunar Atmosphere Composition Experiment (LACE) deployed by Apollo 17.

Although LAMP was designed to map the lunar surface, the team expanded its science investigation to examine the far ultraviolet emissions visible in the tenuous atmosphere above the lunar surface, detecting helium over a campaign spanning more than 50 orbits. Because helium also resides in the interplanetary background, several techniques were applied to remove signal contributions from the background helium and determine the amount of helium native to the Moon.

"The question now becomes, does the helium originate from inside the Moon, for example, due to radioactive decay in rocks, or from an exterior source, such as the solar wind?" says Dr. Alan Stern, LAMP principal investigator and associate vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute. (8/16)

Phoenix Galaxy Cluster May be Most Massive Ever (Source: Huffington Post)
An extraordinary cluster of faraway galaxies is shattering or challenging a number of cosmic records, weighing in as potentially the most massive cluster known. The colossal galaxy cluster is also the brightest in X-ray light, and the galaxy at its heart apparently gives birth to more than 700 stars per year – hundreds of times as fast as our Milky Way forms stars, researchers say.

The cluster of galaxies, located about 7 billion light-years away, is formally known by the alphabet-soup name of SPT-CLJ2344-4243. Astronomers also have given it a more informal moniker: the Phoenix cluster, named after the constellation in which it resides. It appears to contain thousands of galaxies with a range of sizes, from dwarf galaxies to conglomerations of stars about the size of the Milky Way. (8/16)

NASA Selects Green Propellant Technology Demonstration Mission (Source: NASA)
NASA has selected a team led by Ball Aerospace for a technology demonstration of a high performance "green" propellant alternative to the highly toxic fuel hydrazine. With this award, NASA opens a new era of innovative and non-toxic green fuels that are less harmful to our environment, have fewer operational hazards, and decrease the complexity and cost of launch processing.

Today's use of hydrazine fuel for rockets, satellites and spacecraft is pervasive. Hydrazine is an efficient propellant and can be stored for long periods of time, but it also is highly corrosive and toxic. NASA is seeking new, non-toxic high performance green propellants that could be safely and widely used by rocketeers, ranging from government to industry and academia.

Co-investigators at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida are involved in the new mission. NASA's Green Propellant Infusion Mission is expected to be developed and flown in approximately three years. The Space Technology Program will provide $45 million for the mission, with some additional cost-sharing by mission co-investigators. (8/16)

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