Friday, September 27, 2013

Curiosity Rover Makes Big Water Discovery in Mars Dirt, a ‘Wow Moment’

Future Mars explorers may be able to get all the water they need out of the red dirt beneath their boots, a new study suggests.

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has found that surface soil on the Red Planet contains about 2 percent water by weight. That means astronaut pioneers could extract roughly 2 pints (1 liter) of water out of every cubic foot (0.03 cubic meters) of Martian dirt they dig up, said study lead author Laurie Leshin, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

“For me, that was a big ‘wow’ moment,” Leshin told SPACE.com. “I was really happy when we saw that there’s easily accessible water here in the dirt beneath your feet. And it’s probably true anywhere you go on Mars.”

Curiosity touched down inside Mars’ huge Gale Crater in August 2012, kicking off a planned two-year surface mission to determine if the Red Planet could ever have supported microbial life. It achieved that goal in March, when it found that a spot near its landing site called Yellowknife Bay was indeed habitable billions of years ago.

But Curiosity did quite a bit of science work before getting to Yellowknife Bay. Leshin and her colleagues looked at the results of Curiosity’s first extensive Mars soil analyses, which the 1-ton rover performed on dirt that it scooped up at a sandy site called Rocknest in November 2012.

Using its Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, or SAM, Curiosity heated this dirt to a temperature of 1,535 degrees Fahrenheit (835 degrees Celsius), and then identified the gases that boiled off. SAM saw significant amounts of carbon dioxide, oxygen and sulfur compounds — and lots of water on Mars.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Orbital’s Cygnus space freighter embarks on maiden voyage

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The new Cygnus commercial cargo ship has launched on a demonstration voyage to the International Space Station.

Built by Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC), the robotic vessel lifted off atop an Antares rocket from the Wallops spaceport in Virginia, US.

Cygnus is one of two private systems seeded by Nasa to meet America’s ISS re-supply requirements following the retirement of the space shuttles.

A successful mission will see OSC begin a series of operational cargo flights.

Nasa has awarded the company a $1.9bn (£1.2bn) contract covering eight sorties to the station.

Lift-off occurred at 10:58 local time (14:58 GMT).

The two-stage Antares appeared to work flawlessly. Its aim was to put the freighter in an orbit more than 240km above the Earth.

Cygnus will have to use its own thrusters over the course of the next four days to raise its altitude and chase down the space station.

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Friday, September 13, 2013

NASA Says Voyager 1 Space Probe Has Left Solar System

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NASA’s Voyager 1 probe has left the solar system, boldly going where no machine has gone before.

Thirty-six years after it rocketed away from Earth, the plutonium-powered spacecraft has escaped the sun’s influence and is now cruising 11 1/2 billion miles away in interstellar space, or the vast, cold emptiness between the stars, NASA said Thursday.

And just in case it encounters intelligent life out there, it is carrying a gold-plated, 1970s-era phonograph record with multicultural greetings from Earth, photos and songs, including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” along with Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Louis Armstrong.

Never before has a man-made object left the solar system as it is commonly understood.

“We made it,” said an ecstatic Ed Stone, the mission’s chief scientist, who waited decades for this moment.

NASA celebrated by playing the “Star Trek” theme at a news conference in Washington.

Voyager 1 actually made its exit more than a year ago, scientists said. But since there’s no “Welcome to Interstellar Space” sign out there, NASA waited for more evidence before concluding that the probe had in fact broken out of the hot plasma bubble surrounding the planets.

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Friday, September 6, 2013

SpaceShipTwo goes supersonic, flips its wings in second powered flight

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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, the vehicle most likely to become the world’s first truly commercial spaceship, fired its engines in flight for the second time ever on Thursday.

Following up on its first powered flight in April, the craft went supersonic once more —and tested its wing-tilting re-entry system for the first time, Virgin Galactic said in a series of Twitter updates.

The company said the flight test “hit our planned duration, altitude and speed.” The hybrid rocket engine was fired for 20 seconds, sending SpaceShipTwo to a maximum velocity 1.43 times the speed of sound and a maximum altitude of 69,000 feet (21 kilometers), Virgin Galactic reported. That compares with 16 seconds, a top speed of Mach 1.2 and a maximum altitude of 56,200 feet for April’s flight.

Pilots Mark Stucky and Clint Nichols were at the controls during Thursday’s test, which started at about 8 a.m. PT (11 a.m. ET).

The flight followed the basic scenario for Virgin Galactic’s future passenger trips to space: A twin-fuselage carrier airplane, known as WhiteKnightTwo, made a conventional takeoff from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. SpaceShipTwo was tucked beneath WhiteKnightTwo’s 141-foot-wide (43-meter-wide) wings, and dropped into the air from an altitude of 46,000 feet.

The rocket plane’s hybrid engine was then lit up to power the plane even higher. After coasting to the top of its arc, SpaceShipTwo angled its wings into a “feathered” shuttlecock configuration to slow down its descent, then righted the wings again to glide to a Mojave runway landing at 9:25 a.m. PT (12:25 p.m. ET).

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