Thursday, August 30, 2012
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is on track to become the first probe to orbit and study two distant solar system destinations, to help scientists answer questions about the formation of our solar system. The spacecraft is scheduled to leave the giant asteroid Vesta on Sept. 4 PDT (Sept. 5 EDT) to start its two-and-a-half-year journey to the dwarf planet Ceres.
Dawn began its 3-billion-mile (5-billion kilometer) odyssey to explore the two most massive objects in the main asteroid belt in 2007. Dawn arrived at Vesta in July 2011 and will reach Ceres in early 2015. Dawn’s targets represent two icons of the asteroid belt that have been witness to much of our solar system’s history.
To make its escape from Vesta, the spacecraft will spiral away as gently as it arrived, using a special, hyper-efficient system called ion propulsion. Dawn’s ion propulsion system uses electricity to ionize xenon to generate thrust. The 12-inch-wide ion thrusters provide less power than conventional engines, but can maintain thrust for months at a time.
“Thrust is engaged, and we are now climbing away from Vesta atop a blue-green pillar of xenon ions,” said Marc Rayman, Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We are feeling somewhat wistful about concluding a fantastically productive and exciting exploration of Vesta, but now have our sights set on dwarf planet Ceres.
Dawn’s orbit provided close-up views of Vesta, revealing unprecedented detail about the giant asteroid. The mission revealed that Vesta completely melted in the past, forming a layered body with an iron core. The spacecraft also revealed the scarring from titanic collisions Vesta suffered in its southern hemisphere, surviving not one but two colossal impacts in the last two billion years. Without Dawn, scientists would not have known about the dramatic troughs sculpted around Vesta, which are ripples from the two south polar impacts.
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
NASA has formally cleared Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) to begin making cargo runs to the international space station following the company’s completion of its $400 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract agreement with the agency.
In the second of two demonstrations under that contract, SpaceX delivered cargo to the orbital outpost in May using its Dragon capsule launched atop its Falcon 9 rocket.
SpaceX will fly 12 logistics missions to the station under its $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract awarded in 2008. The first of those flights is scheduled for no earlier than Oct. 5.
Monday, August 27, 2012
Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, has died, following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures. He was 82.
Armstrong’s words “That is one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” spoken on July 20, 1969, as he became the first person ever to step onto another planetary body, instantly became a part of history.
Those few words from the Sea of Tranquillity were the climactic fulfillment of the efforts and hopes of millions of people and the expenditure of billions of dollars. A plaque on one of the lander’s legs that concluded “We came in peace for all mankind,” further emphasized that Armstrong and fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were there as representatives of all humans.
In a 2001 oral history interview, Armstrong credited those behind the scenes for the mission’s success: “when you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance. And that’s the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off.”
Armstrong is survived by his wife, two sons, a stepson, a stepdaughter, 10 grandchildren, and a brother and sister.
“Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time, but of all time,” President Barack Obama said via Twitter. “Thank you, Neil, for showing us the power of one small step.”
Armstrong’s family released the following statement on Saturday:
“Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job. He served his Nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He also found success back home in his native Ohio in business and academia, and became a community leader in Cincinnati.
While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.
Friday, August 24, 2012
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced Thursday new milestones in the nation’s commercial space initiatives from the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The latest advances made by NASA’s commercial space partners pave the way for the first contracted flight of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) this fall and mark progress toward a launch of astronauts from U.S. soil in the next 5 years.
Bolden announced Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has completed its Space Act Agreement with NASA for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). SpaceX is scheduled to launch the first of its 12 contracted cargo flights to the space station from Cape Canaveral in October, under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services Program.
“We’re working to open a new frontier for commercial opportunities in space and create job opportunities right here in Florida and across the United States,” Bolden said. “And we’re working to in-source the work that is currently being done elsewhere and bring it right back here to the U.S. where it belongs.”
Through the COTS program, NASA provides investments to stimulate the American commercial space industry. As part of its COTS partnership, SpaceX became the first commercial company to resupply the space station in May, successfully launching its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to the orbiting complex. During the historic mission, the Dragon was captured by astronauts using the station’s robot arm, unloaded and safely returned to Earth carrying experiments conducted aboard ISS. Later this winter, Orbital Sciences Corp. plans to carry out its first test flight under COTS.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
NASA’s next low-budget planetary mission will land a probe on Mars in 2016 to study why the Red Planet went down such a different evolutionary path than Earth did, the agency announced today (Aug. 20).
The new mission, called InSight, will attempt to determine whether Mars’ core is liquid or solid, and why the Red Planet’s crust does not appear to be composed of drifting tectonic plates like Earth’s is. Such information could help scientists better understand how rocky planets form and evolve, researchers said.
InSight will get to the ‘core’ of the nature of the interior and structure of Mars, well below the observations we’ve been able to make from orbit or the surface,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
InSight — short for Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — is the latest of NASA’s Discovery-class missions, and its cost will be capped at $425 million in 2010 dollars (excluding the launch vehicle).
The mission will be led by Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Insight is slated to launch in March 2016 and put a lander on Mars in September of that year to begin its two-year science mission.
The lander will carry four instruments, which will determine Mars’ rotation axis and measure the seismic waves and heat flowing through and from the planet’s interior. The craft will also sport a robotic arm and two cameras, researchers said.
Insight beat out two other finalists to become NASA’s 12th Discovery-class mission. The other two contenders were Comet Hopper, which would have landed on a comet multiple times to study how the body changed on its trip around the sun, and the Titan Mare Explorer, or TiME.