Thursday, June 28, 2012

Asteroid hunters want to launch private telescope

In a bold plan unveiled Thursday, the group of former NASA employees wants to launch its own space telescope to spot and track small and mid-sized space rocks capable of wiping out a city or continent. They could sound early warnings if a rogue asteroid appeared headed toward our planet.

So far, the idea from the B612 Foundation is on paper only.

Such an effort would cost upward of several hundred million dollars. Behind the nonprofit are a space shuttle astronaut, Apollo 9 astronaut, former Mars czar, deep space mission manager and other non-NASA types.

Asteroids are leftovers from the formation of the solar system some 4.5 billion years ago. Most reside in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but some get nudged into Earth’s neighborhood.

NASA and a network of astronomers routinely scan the skies for these near-Earth objects. They’ve found 90 percent of the biggest threats — asteroids that are considered major killers. Scientists believe one such asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs.

But the group thinks more attention should be paid to the estimated half a million smaller asteroids — similar in size to the one that exploded over Siberia in 1908 and leveled more than 800 square miles (2,071 square kilometers) of forest.

“We know these objects are out there, and we can do something to prevent them” from hitting Earth, said former Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who helped establish the foundation a decade ago.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Huge Mars Rover’s Landing Will Be ‘7 Minutes of Terror’

In just six weeks, NASA’s next Mars rover will attempt an unprecedented landing on the Red Planet that will have mission engineers on the edge of their seats with excitement and worry.

The 1-ton Curiosity rover — the centerpiece of NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission — is due to touch down inside the Red Planet’s Gale Crater on the night of Aug. 5. But it won’t be easy.

“Entry, descent and landing, also known as EDL, is referred to as the ’seven minutes of terror,’” EDL engineer Tom Rivellini, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., said in a recent JPL video.

“We’ve got literally seven minutes to go from the top of the atmosphere to the surface of Mars, going from 13,000 miles per hour to zero in perfect sequence, perfect choreography, perfect timing,” Rivellini added. “And the computer has to do it all by itself, with no help from the ground. If any one thing doesn’t work just right, it’s game over.”

Curiosity’s landing will likely be more anxiety-inducing than most planetary touchdowns. The robot is too big to land cushioned by airbags like previous Red Planet rovers, so researchers had to come up with an entirely new method.

They settled on a rocket-powered sky crane, which will lower Curiosity to the Martian surface on cables before flying off to crash-land on purpose a safe distance away.

“When people look at it, it looks crazy,” EDL engineer Adam Steltzner, also of JPL, said in the video. “That’s a very natural thing. Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy. It is the result of reasoned engineering thought, but it still looks crazy.”

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Friday, June 22, 2012

ArduSat Kickstarter project puts an Arduino-based satellite up for rent

While most of us wouldn’t know where to start if we were given access to a satellite, the ArduSat Kickstarter project aims to enable people who would. The project involves designing a CubeSat — a standardized satellite form factor measuring just under four inches per side — based on Arduino hardware and which will be leased to scientists, students, and hobbyists as they need it. The ArduSat is loaded with sensors, cameras, and radios that will be available for use in just about any experiment you can think of, and that’s the point: the team is trying to create an open source, crowd-funded opportunity to run experiments in space without having to undergo months of planning and fundraising.

The ArduSat will be equipped with three cameras, an open source spectrometer, magnetometer, and even a Geiger counter. It will also come with accelerometers, a gyroscope, a flight navigation system, and a spare GPS chip just for research purposes, among many others. Data collected during the experiments will be stored on SD cards and transmitted back to earth via UHF radios, where it will be passed on by the staff of ArduSat. The entire satellite will be powered by solar panels located on 4 inch square exterior frame.

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Voyager approaches edge of solar system

The Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched from Earth in 1977, will be the first man-made object to leave the solar system within the next year or two, scientists from NASA report.

“We are approaching the solar system’s frontier,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at CalTech in Pasadena, Calif.

The spacecraft is billions of miles beyond the orbits of the planets in our solar system, but it is still within the system, continuing to detect solar winds, or electrically charged gases ejected from our sun.

Based on new data from the craft, NASA announced last week that Voyager 1 was nearing the “heliopause,” which scientists believe is the border between our solar system and interstellar space, says NASA research scientist Eric Christian in Greenbelt, Md.

The heliopause is the point where solar winds stop and magnetic fields shift from the solar system to that of deep space.

“The latest data indicate that we are clearly in a new region where things are changing more quickly,” Stone says.

Voyager 1 and its identical sister ship, Voyager 2, also launched in 1977, between them explored all of the solar system’s outer planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the 1980s.

Back in 2004, the spacecraft crossed a boundary called the “termination shock,” where the solar winds slow as they first meet interstellar space, which some scientists thought was the edge of the solar system.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Orbiter Out of Precautionary ‘Safe Mode’

NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter has been taken out of a protective status called safe mode. Remaining steps toward resuming all normal spacecraft activities will probably be completed by next week.

Odyssey resumed pointing downward toward Mars on Saturday, June 16, leaving the Earth-pointed “safe mode” status that was triggered when one of its three primary reaction wheels stuck for a few minutes on June 8, Universal Time (June 7, Pacific Time). Mission controllers put the orbiter’s spare reaction wheel into use in control of Odyssey’s orientation while pointed downward, or nadir.

“Attitude control in nadir pointing is being maintained with the use of the replacement wheel, and the suspect wheel has been taken out of use,” said Odyssey Project Manager Gaylon McSmith of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Controllers will continue characterizing the performance of the replacement wheel in coming days while assessing which other activities of the spacecraft, besides nadir pointing, can be performed reliably with reaction-wheel control of attitude. The spacecraft can also use thrusters for attitude control, though that method draws on the limited supply of propellant rather than on electricity from the spacecraft’s solar array.

In returning to full service, Odyssey will first resume its communication relay function for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, and then will resume the orbiter’s own scientific observations of Mars. As a priority, activities will resume for preparing Odyssey to serve as a communications relay for NASA Mars Science Laboratory mission.

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