Thursday, November 10, 2011

NASA runs J-2X engine 500 seconds in ground firing

The powerful liquid hydrogen-fed engine NASA is developing to propel hardware and humans out of Earth orbit underwent a successful ground test-firing in Mississippi on Wednesday afternoon.

The J-2X powerplant built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne will be fitted to the upper stage of the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket that will send manned missions to deep space.

“The J-2X engine is critical to the development of the Space Launch System,” Dan Dumbacher, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, said after the test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. “Today’s test means NASA is moving closer to developing the rocket it needs if humans are to explore beyond low-Earth orbit.”

On the A-2 test stand at the Stennis Space Center, the engine roared to life at 4:04 p.m. EST (2104 GMT) for a 499.97-second firing to simulate flight conditions at its full-power throttle setting.

It is the same facility originally built in the 1960s for Apollo testing and then used to fire space shuttle main engines before being retrofitted to support the J-2X.

This engine itself was derived from the J-2 cryogenic powerplant used aboard the Saturn 5 moon rockets a half-century ago.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

City lights could reveal E.T. civilization

Astromers Avi Loeb (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and Edwin Turner (Princeton University) suggest a new technique for finding aliens: look for their city lights.

“Looking for alien cities would be a long shot, but wouldn’t require extra resources. And if we succeed, it would change our perception of our place in the universe,” said Loeb.

As with other SETI methods, they rely on the assumption that aliens would use Earth-like technologies. This is reasonable because any intelligent life that evolved in the light from its nearest star is likely to have artificial illumination that switches on during the hours of darkness.

How easy would it be to spot a city on a distant planet? Clearly, this light will have to be distinguished from the glare from the parent star. Loeb and Turner suggest looking at the change in light from an exoplanet as it moves around its star.

As the planet orbits, it goes through phases similar to those of the Moon. When it’s in a dark phase, more artificial light from the night side would be visible from Earth than reflected light from the day side. So the total flux from a planet with city lighting will vary in a way that is measurably different from a planet that has no artificial lights.

Spotting this tiny signal would require future generations of telescopes. However, the technique could be tested closer to home, using objects at the edge of our solar system.

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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

ESA wrestles with software errors on Mars Express probe

European officials have temporarily halted scientific observations aboard the Mars Express spacecraft after a spate of software hiccups, but managers are hopeful the mission can resume research after eight years at Mars.

The Mars Express probe’s 12-gigabit solid-state mass memory unit, which stores scientific and engineering data before transmission to Earth, has triggered a series of “safe modes” since mid-August, ultimately leading mission managers to suspend the science mission Oct. 16.

Launched in June 2003, Mars Express entered orbit around the Red Planet six months later and has studied the planet with a high-resolution color camera, a ground-piercing radar, and a suite of other instruments.

Mars Express, which circles Mars in an oval-shaped elliptical orbit, initially entered safe mode due to a “complex combination of events relating to reading from and writing to memory modules” in the craft’s solid-state mass memory system, according to the European Space Agency. It was the mission’s first safe mode in three years.

After controllers executed a standard recovery sequence and resumed normal operations, Mars Express was again placed in safe mode, and engineers switched to a redundant B-side memory unit controller to avoid future anomalies.

But two more safe modes in September and October, plus another error that did not interrupt science operations, compelled managers to suspend the mission to find a solution to the recurring problem.

The errors in the B-side unit occurred during communication between two subsystems of the solid-state memory unit.

Controllers at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, are preparing a workaround to “allow at least partial resumption of science observations,” according to a posting on ESA’s website.

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Monday, October 31, 2011

Boeing to Build Spacecraft at Shuttle Hangar

Boeing will announce an agreement with Space Florida on Monday to lease the hangar that housed the space shuttles to build similar craft that will bring people and cargo to space.

The deal with the state’s space agency will create 140 jobs in the next 18 months and 550 jobs by 2015 in an area that’s lost jobs as the space shuttle program was retired earlier this year, according to Gov. Rick Scott’s office and President Barack Obama’s administration.

“Florida has five decades of leadership in the space industry, which makes our state the logical place for the next phase of space travel and exploration,” Scott said in prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press. “Boeing’s choice of Florida for its Commercial Crew program headquarters is evidence Florida has the world-class facilities and workforce expertise needed for aerospace companies to succeed.”

Likewise, the Obama administration praised the agreement between the Chicago-based Boeing and Space Florida.

“The next era of space exploration won’t wait, and so we can’t wait for Congress to do its job and give our space program the funding it needs. That’s why my administration will be pressing forward, in partnership with Space Florida and the private sector, to create jobs and make sure America continues to lead the world in exploration and discovery,” Obama said in prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Enhanced Dragon capsule begins launch preparations

SpaceX’s first Dragon spaceship scheduled to fly to the International Space Station is now in Florida, where it will be assembled, fueled and attached to a Falcon rocket for blastoff as soon as Dec. 19.

The gumdrop-shaped capsule was trucked cross-country from Hawthorne, Calif., the headquarters of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. SpaceX builds its Falcon launch vehicles, rocket engines, and Dragon spacecraft in a spacious 550,000-square-foot factory near Los Angeles International Airport.

It arrived Sunday at the SpaceX hangar in Cape Canaveral. The first and second stages of the Dragon’s Falcon 9 booster are already at the launch site.

The Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket will be prepared in the same hangar, then attached to each other and rolled on rails 600 feet to Launch Complex 40, SpaceX’s launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

According to Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, engineers completed a 12-day thermal vacuum test of the Dragon spacecraft with “no notable issues” before shipment to Florida.

SpaceX added two solar array wings to generate electricity and a redundant active thermal control loop to reject heat into space and project the spacecraft from extreme temperatures.

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