Thursday, July 28, 2011

STS-135: The Final Voyage

With a merging of technology and tears, the final chapter in the 30-year history of space shuttle flights has been written. For all who have worked to send these first-of-a-kind engineering marvels to space and return them to Earth, all who have flown aboard them, and all who have simply watched with awe and pride as they flew, space shuttle Atlantis’ STS-135 mission was an emotional end of an era.

It was a hot July day on Florida’s Space Coast as nearly a million spectators gathered along the beaches, rivers and causeways to watch history in the making. The weather forecast was a daunting 70 percent “no-go” to start the day, yet the countdown proceeded smoothly.

Just as expectations peaked and launch looked imminent, a last-minute glitch held the clock at T-31 seconds. The issue — whether the gaseous oxygen vent arm had fully retracted — was quickly resolved by the experienced team inside the Launch Control Center at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and the clock began counting down the final seconds.

Down to the wire, with less than a minute left in the day’s launch window, the three main engines roared to life and the twin solid rocket boosters thundered. Atlantis rose from the launch pad on a plume of fire and parted the high clouds on its way to the International Space Station and to its place in history. The 11:29 a.m. EDT liftoff on July 8, 2011, marked the last time a space shuttle would climb from Kennedy’s seaside launch complex to soar toward the heavens.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

NASA’s Next Mars Rover to Land at Gale Crater

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s next Mars rover will land at the foot of a layered mountain inside the planet’s Gale crater.

The car-sized Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, is scheduled to launch late this year and land in August 2012. The target crater spans 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter and holds a mountain rising higher from the crater floor than Mount Rainier rises above Seattle. Gale is about the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Layering in the mound suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of deposits. The crater is named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale.

“Mars is firmly in our sights,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Curiosity not only will return a wealth of important science data, but it will serve as a precursor mission for human exploration to the Red Planet.”

During a prime mission lasting one Martian year — nearly two Earth years — researchers will use the rover’s tools to study whether the landing region had favorable environmental conditions for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life ever existed.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

NASA’s Hubble Discovers Another Moon Around Pluto

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered a fourth moon orbiting the icy dwarf planet Pluto. The tiny, new satellite – temporarily designated P4 — was uncovered in a Hubble survey searching for rings around the dwarf planet.

The new moon is the smallest discovered around Pluto. It has an estimated diameter of 8 to 21 miles (13 to 34 km). By comparison, Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, is 648 miles (1,043 km) across, and the other moons, Nix and Hydra, are in the range of 20 to 70 miles in diameter (32 to 113 km).

“I find it remarkable that Hubble’s cameras enabled us to see such a tiny object so clearly from a distance of more than 3 billion miles (5 billion km),” said Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., who led this observing program with Hubble.

The finding is a result of ongoing work to support NASA’s New Horizons mission, scheduled to fly through the Pluto system in 2015. The mission is designed to provide new insights about worlds at the edge of our solar system. Hubble’s mapping of Pluto’s surface and discovery of its satellites have been invaluable to planning for New Horizons’ close encounter.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

NASA’s Opportunity Tops 20 Miles of Mars Driving

July 19, 2011

More than seven years into what was planned as a three-month mission on Mars, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has driven more than 20 miles, which is more than 50 times the mission’s original distance goal.

A drive of 407 feet (124 meters) completed on July 17 took Opportunity past the 20-mile mark (32.2 kilometers). It brought the rover to within a few drives of reaching the rim of Endeavour crater, the rover’s team’s long-term destination since mid-2008. Endeavour is about 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter, and its western rim exposes outcrops that record information older than any Opportunity has examined so far. The rover is now about eight-tenths of a mile (about 1.3 kilometers) from the site chosen for arriving at the rim.

“The numbers aren’t really as important as the fact that driving so much farther than expected during this mission has put a series of exciting destinations within Opportunity’s reach,” said Alfonso Herrera, a rover mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. who has worked on the rover missions since before launch in 2003.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Dawn asteroid explorer moves into orbit at Vesta

BY STEPHEN CLARK
SPACEFLIGHT NOW
Posted: July 17, 2011

NASA’s robotic Dawn spacecraft drifted into orbit around Vesta on Saturday, starting a yearlong science campaign to map one of the solar system’s largest unexplored worlds sandwiched in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Launched from Earth in September 2007, Dawn spiraled away from the sun with the help of a cutting edge ion propulsion system and a gravity boost from a flyby of Mars.

“Today, we celebrate an incredible exploration milestone as a spacecraft enters orbit around an object in the main asteroid belt for the first time,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. “Dawn’s study of the asteroid Vesta marks a major scientific accomplishment and also points the way to the future destinations where people will travel in the coming years. President Obama has directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, and Dawn is gathering crucial data that will inform that mission.”

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