Wednesday, October 31, 2012

NASA’s Huge New SLS Rocket Could Power Missions Far Beyond Mars

NASA is contemplating space journeys far beyond a near-Earth asteroid, the moon or Mars for its new heavy-lift rocket in development. The Space Launch System (SLS), as it is called, could instead visit the moon of Pluto or return samples from other outer planets.

An unmanned flyby mission to Pluto’s Charon, sample return missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s Titan, or a sample-gathering flight through Jupiter’s atmosphere or the ice water jets of Saturn’s Enceladus — all are said to be possible with the 286,000-pound (130,000 kilograms) launch capabilities of the Space Launch System.

The first launch of SLS is planned for 2017, but it will not have an upper stage and will be able to put only 154,000 pounds (70,000 kg) into low-Earth orbit. Beginning in 2022, however, the rocket is expected to have more powerful boosters and an upper stage to give it an ability to deliver 286,000 pounds to Earth orbit.

Such large cargos will be transported under a nose-cone fairing that will have a diameter of about 30 feet (10 meters), giving the Space Launch System a useful payload volume of about 38,846 cubic feet (1,100 cubic meters). The rocket itself has a diameter of about 25 feet (8.4 meters).

Science possibilities

It is this combination of a very large lift capability and nose-cone volume that is expected to enable ambitious missions such as sample return from the outer planets.

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Voyager 1 is the most distant man-made object and is thought to have recently escaped the sun’s sphere of influence. The probe, launched 35 years ago, is therefore mankind’s first interstellar vehicle careening into the vast expanse of space between the stars.

Needless to say, as one of two deep space probes launched in 1977, Voyager 1 has explored previously unknown regions of the solar system, making groundbreaking discoveries as it went. Now, in a new paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, scientists analyzing data streaming from the spacecraft have uncovered a small mystery right at the solar system’s magnetic boundary with the interstellar medium.

As the sun travels through the galaxy, it carries its magnetic field with it, creating a magnetic “bubble” — the heliosphere — that all planets, spacecraft and people live inside. Until recently, Voyager 1 (and her sister probe Voyager 2) have also existed completely inside the sun’s environment. Both probes could detect the high energy particles streaming from the sun and they ‘felt’ the solar magnetic field. At time of writing, Voyager 1 is nearly 122 AU from the sun (over three times the average Pluto-sun distance) and it takes over 17 hours for a signal to travel from the probe to Earth.

So, in an effort to detect when the Voyager probes might exit the heliosphere, scientists have kept a watchful eye on two key pieces of data — particle energy counts and magnetic field strength (and orientation).

n 2004, scientists realized that Voyager 1 had traveled through the “termination shock” — a region where the solar wind begins to interact with the interstellar medium. Then, in 2010, the probe crossed into a stagnation region just beyond the termination shock known as the “heliosheath” — this is where the solar wind slows to zero and the magnetic field becomes compressed and begins to fluctuate.

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Monday, October 29, 2012

SpaceX capsule returns with safe landing in Pacific

The capsule was sent by the California-based company SpaceX, the first of 12 missions it will perform for US space agency Nasa.

It landed in the Pacific Ocean west of Mexico at 12:22 local time (19:22 GMT).

Nasa is looking to the private sector to assume routine transport duties to and from low-Earth orbit.

The robotic Dragon ship lifted off on 7 October, with 400kg of food, clothing, experiments and spares for the orbiting platform’s six astronauts, and docked three days later.

On its return, the capsule carried broken machinery and medical samples gathered by the astronauts aboard the ISS over the course of the past year.

SpaceX’s next mission is expected in January, although the company will need to satisfy Nasa before then that the cause of an engine anomaly experienced by Dragon’s launch rocket during its 7 October ascent has been understood, and that corrective action has been taken.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

Liftoff! SpaceX Dragon Launches 1st Private Space Station Cargo Mission

A privately built rocket lit up the night sky over Florida Sunday (Oct. 7) to kick off the first-ever cargo delivery trip to the International Space Station by a robotic, American-made spacecraft.

The unmanned Dragon space capsule, built by the commercial spaceflight firm SpaceX, roared into space atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from a launch pad here at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, beginning a three-day flight to the space station. Liftoff occurred at 8:35 p.m. EDT (0035 Monday GMT).

The mission is the first of a dozen SpaceX cargo flights under a $1.6 billion deal with NASA for its Commercial Resupply Services program. This flight, being the first mission, is dubbed SpaceX CRS-1 and is expected to arrive at the orbiting lab on Wednesday morning (Oct. 7).

NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini said Dragon’s ability to launch supplies to the station and return cargo back to Earth is a cornerstone of boosting scientific research on the orbiting laboratory, as well as its day-to-day maintenance.

“Not to be overdramatic, but it’s critical to the International Space Station,” Suffredini said during the countdown to launch. [Photos: Dragon Launches on 1st Space Station Cargo Trip]

Sunday night’s launch was nearly flawless. One of the Falcon 9 rocket nine engines apparently shut down unexpectedly during the ascent, but the booster’s eight other engines compensated for the glitch and delivered the Dragon spacecraft into its intended orbit, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said after the flight. The rocket is designed to do exactly that in the event of an engine anomaly, she added.

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