Friday, April 27, 2012

Space Shuttle Enterprise Takes Off for NYC on Final Flight

Space shuttle Enterprise took to the air Friday morning (April 27) for the first time in more than a quarter-century, but the two-hour flight is also to be its last. Its final destination: the Big Apple.

Enterprise, the original prototype for NASA’s winged space shuttles, took off from Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport at 9:39 a.m. EDT (1339 GMT) mounted on top of the space agency’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

The air- and spacecraft duo is expected to land at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport around 11:30 a.m. EDT (1530 GMT) after flying over the New York City metro area and some of its most famous landmarks.

The flight begins Enterprise’s journey to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, a converted World War II aircraft carrier docked at Pier 86 in Manhattan.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

3.2 billion-pixel space survey camera gets approved

The US Department of Energy has given the go-ahead to a 3.2 billion-pixel digital camera that could one day survey the entire visible sky every week, and publicly release six million gigabytes of data per year.

The enormous camera is called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope camera (LSST), and when it’s perched atop the Chilean mountain of Cerro Pachón it will gaze into deep space, snapping wide cosmic vistas.

The telescopic lens will sport 189 sensors, and a primary mirror over eight metres across. Astronomers will use it to answer questions about dark energy and dark matter, and aid into near-Earth asteroids, Kuiper belt objects, and the very structure of our galaxy.

The DOE has given the project “Critical Decision 1”, which means the camera can now begin a detailed engineering design, schedule, and budget phase. If all continues as planned, construction on the telescope will begin in 2014.

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Astronomers identify three extrasolar planets

The team of astronomers used the Cornell-built Near-Infrared Triple Spectrograph (TripleSpec) at California’s Mount Palomar Observatory to measure the temperatures and metallicities of small stars called M dwarfs, first recorded by the NASA Kepler mission, which then led to observations of planets orbiting these stars. Kepler launched in 2009 to search for planets outside our solar system, which are called extrasolar planets or exoplanets. The team that built TripleSpec, completed in 2008, was led by Terry Herter, Cornell professor of astronomy.

The findings were published online April 23 in Astrophysical Journal Letters (Vol. 750, No. 2). The discovery could lead to better studies of these planets and pave the way toward discovering planets just like Earth.

The three planets orbit within their host stars’ “habitable zones” — the orbital distance in which liquid water could exist, and the sweet spot for determining whether life could be possible. The host stars — KOI (Kepler Object of Interest) 463.01, KOI 812.03 and KOI 854.01 — are located in areas of the sky between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, in the range of a few hundred to a few thousand light years away.

“There is a fairly solid argument that the vast majority of planets in the universe, and quite possibly the Earthlike habitable zone planets, are planets orbiting M dwarfs,” said Jamie Lloyd, associate professor of astronomy and mechanical and aerospace engineering, and paper co-author.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

SpaceX flight preps continue with fueling, engine hotfire

While engineers analyze and tweak software coding, SpaceX will continue making physical preparations to the Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 booster for a commercial launch to the International Space Station as soon as May 7, officials said Tuesday.

Managers on Tuesday officially reset the flight’s target launch date to May 7. The precise launch opportunity will be at 9:38 a.m. EDT (1338 GMT). SpaceX could make a second launch attempt May 10 if officials are comfortable with flying the Dragon mission before the arrival of three astronauts aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

SpaceX decided Monday to delay the launch from April 30 to allow for more hardware-in-the-loop testing and proper data reviews. The company has conducted extensive software testing since last year to meet NASA’s stringent safety requirements for approaching the space station.

The hardware-in-the-loop testing employs test units at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., and the flight spacecraft in the hangar at Cape Canaveral’s launch pad 40.

“It’s where you get the hardware and the software together and you make sure that they operate as you expect,” said Mike Suffredini, NASA’s space station program manager, in a media briefing earlier this month.

SpaceX’s software testing must prove the Dragon spacecraft is safe enough to fly in close proximity to the space station and its crew. NASA is responsible for ensuring the complex and its residents are not threatened by visiting vehicles.

The Dragon capsule features redundant systems, but its software must be able to recognize failures and respond properly, switching to backup strings if necessary.

“We appreciate that SpaceX is taking the necessary time to help ensure the success of this historic flight,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “We will continue to work with SpaceX in preparing for the May 7 launch to the International Space Station.”

Launch preparations continued Tuesday while SpaceX and NASA worked on the Dragon’s software reviews.

Filling of the Dragon capsule’s hypergolic propellant tanks was supposed to be completed Tuesday, according to Kirstin Brost Grantham, a SpaceX spokesperson.

The spacecraft was scheduled to be rotated from a vertical position to a horizontal orientation Thursday and attached to the upper stage of the Falcon 9 launcher inside SpaceX’s hangar.

The aerodynamic nose cone is set to be integrated to the forward end of the Dragon capsule Friday.

A brief firing of the Falcon rocket’s nine Merlin first stage engines is scheduled for April 30. SpaceX conducts a hotfire test of the Falcon 9’s engines before each launch to check their health.

A technical review meeting is planned for Friday, and a SpaceX launch readiness review is set for May 5, according to an official familiar with the Dragon mission.

As currently envisioned, the schedule would make possible a launch attempt May 7, assuming NASA and SpaceX finish software testing.

Full article: http://www.spaceflig … con9/003/120424date/

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Mysterious Objects Punching Holes In Weird Saturn Ring

Mysterious objects appear to be doing some damage to Saturn’s “weirdest ring,” scientists say.

The discovery comes from detailed photos taken of the Saturn system by NASA’s Cassini orbiter. In these images, researchers spotted strange objects about a half-mile (kilometer) wide tearing through Saturn’s F ring, the thin outermost discrete ring around the planet.

As they pass through the ring, these interlopers drag glittering ice particles out with them, creating visible trails of debris scientists are calling “mini jets.”

“I think the F ring is Saturn’s weirdest ring, and these latest Cassini results go to show how the F ring is even more dynamic than we ever thought,” Carl Murray, a Cassini imaging team member based at London’s Queen Mary University, said in a statement. “These findings show us that the F ring region is like a bustling zoo of objects from a half mile in size to moons like Prometheus a hundred miles in size, creating a spectacular show.”

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