Into the belly of NASA…

Last week I was lucky enough to get to go on a tour of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center with a group of other interns. Let me tell you, this place is amazing. I could try to do this all in words, but I think a lot of these pictures just need to be seen to be believed. So please enjoy the gallery below!

Here are links for more information about the NASA missions mentioned above:

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SpaceX: mission (and history) accomplished…

Here’s SpaceX’s Dragon capsule after it was captured by the International Space Station‘s (ISS) Canadarm2 early this morning. Credit: www.2space.net

It’s official! According to NASA’s official press release, “The International Space Station Expedition 31 crew successfully captured the SpaceX Dragon capsule with the station’s robotic arm at 9:56 AM EDT. The feat came 3 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 23 seconds after the mission’s launch. The station was 251 miles over northwest Australia when capture occurred.” This was soon followed by, ” The SpaceX Dragon capsule was securely bolted to the Harmony module of the International Space Station at 12:02 p.m. EDT.” As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, SpaceX has made history and single-handedly ushered in a new era of space exploration. They are now the only private company ever to launch into orbit and return and the only to dock with the International Space Station (ISS). Not too shabby for an endeavor that only started a mere four years ago after President Obama announced the beginning of NASA’s new Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The success of Dragon‘s launch, rendezvous, capture, and docking with the ISS can’t be emphasized enough, this now helps to close the space gap which I have mentioned previously and no longer leaves the U.S. without a viable means to launch astronauts into space. Of course, there will still need to be more test flights and it might still be awhile before NASA okays manned flights of its astronauts on Dragon capsules, but this is definite and exciting progress to say the least!

I think without a doubt though, my favorite tidbit from this whole event was the reaction by NASA astronaut and current ISS resident, Don Pettit who relayed this gem after the ISS’s Canadarm2 (the robotic arm used to grab and move things outside the station) had successfully grabbed hold of the Dragon capsule: “Houston, it looks like we got us a Dragon by the tail.” Classic.

At 12:02pm EST, Dragon successfully berthed (docked) with the ISS’s Harmony module. Credit: NASA

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Looking to launch and preparing for transit…

As many of you probably heard, SpaceX’s launch of its Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) that was slated for early Saturday morning was aborted at literally the last second before launch. The abort was triggered by readings of excess pressure in one of the rocket’s engines. The problem was ultimately traced back to a faulty valve on one of the rocket engines which was replaced on Sunday. Now with everything supposedly right as rain, SpaceX looks forward to launching at the opening of the next possible launch window, which opens at 3:44am on Tuesday. As you may remember, back in December 2010, SpaceX became the first ever private company to launch into space; now it looks into sweetening the deal as it’s slated to become the first private company to dock with the ISS. This is a VERY good thing for the American space program. Despite flurries of protest and new ideas from Congress to limit the competition in space commercialization, SpaceX is doing exactly what President Obama hoped companies would do when he announced the space commercialization initiative back in 2008– beating the rest of the competition to the punch. Not that Obama is specifically backing or rooting for SpaceX, but this is exactly what the President wanted, competition fostering and driving innovation and accelerated success. I’ll have to wholeheartedly disagree with Congressmen who argue that competition breeds lackluster performance and unsafe equipment. Let’s face it, when going into space, there’s an inherent level of risk. Even NASA, the be-all, end-all of space-faring lost two (Columbia and Challenger) out of its five Space Shuttles, so it happens. But let’s examine this: Orbital Sciences, another company vying for NASA launch contracts, has already launched two NASA-funded missions (nearly $700 million) into the Pacific Ocean. Now, using the Congressional argument, we would have been locked into using Orbital Sciences and SpaceX would not have gotten federal subsidies or contracts to help get it to where it is today. Now to be honest, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX are trying to work on two different goals at the moment: Orbital Sciences is set on launching new satellites into space and SpaceX is focused on transporting crews and cargo, but you can see my point. If anything, competition forces greater concern over safety and ensuring success and greatly reduces the probability of project delays and going over budget. And if you don’t think that’s true, just look at how careful SpaceX was this weekend. As President Hoover once said, “Competition is not only the basis of protection to the consumer, but is the incentive to progress.”

Ultraviolet image of Venus’ clouds as seen by the Pioneer Venus Orbiter on February  5, 1979. Credit: spacedaily.com

Switching gears a bit, you may or may not have heard, but a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event is happening on the evening of  Tuesday, June 5, 2012: Venus will be transiting the Sun. What does that mean? Well what that means is that we (Earthlings) will be able to see Venus on the disk of the Sun. You may say to yourself: why is this so special, doesn’t Venus go around the Sun every year? Well yes, you’re right, Venus orbits the Sun once every 225 Earth days, but Venus’ orbit doesn’t exactly lie in the same plane as the rest of the planets– it’s off by what might seem a slight 3°. But since distances are so large in space– Earth is a whopping 93,000,000,000,000 miles from the Sun– that small angle means that Venus only crosses the line of sight between the Earth and the Sun twice (in events separated by eight years) every century. The last transit of Venus was back in 2004 (imaged below) and it won’t happen again until 2117. Now if you’d like to find out more about the transit, you can visit transitofvenus.org, they’ve got pretty much everything you need to know, including what the transit is, where and how you can see it, a short video summary of the event and why it’s important, and even a recipe for a nice cosmic cocktail to enjoy responsibly while you view the transit! You can also check out thesuntoday.org or NASA’s official page, which have lots of stuff including information about NASA’s planned live feed of the transit from the Keck telescopes in Hawaii and maps of transit events in your area!

The entire June 2004 transit of Venus is captured in a composite photograph composed of 11 separate images taken at 30 minute intervals. Photographs by Fred Espenak, MrEclipse.com

Jeremiah Horrocks, an English astronomer, predicted the first ever observed transit of Venus back in 1639– contradicting the great Johannes Kepler, who said that Venus would miss transiting the Sun– and then observed it using a telescope. In fact, the transit of Venus is very important historically– it’s one of the ways we calculated the size of our solar system. You see, when you have two observers watching the transit from two locations on Earth, each sees a distinct path (red and blue below) of Venus across the Sun.  The slight difference in time that Venus takes, moving from edge to edge, can mathematically unlock the distance from Earth to the Sun, and thus the size of our solar system. In fact, after realizing this, the great English astronomer Edmond Halley (of comet fame) greatly encouraged countries to send expeditions around the globe to time future transits of Venus across the sun. Explorers and scientists faced great peril and set out all over the world for the transits of the 17th (1761 and 1769) and 18th (1874 and 1882) centuries.

Two observers from different locations on Earth will see Venus trace different paths across the Sun. The difference in time of the transits between the two paths can be used to calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun and thusly the size of the solar system. Credit: transitofvenus.org

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A not so minor mining endeavor…

As I’m sure many of you have heard in the news recently (ABC News, Fox News, NPRSpace.com), there was a very big announcement made last week by a group of very wealthy businessmen who are planning to mine asteroids and possibly other heavenly bodies. The new space venture firm, named Planetary Resources, Inc., is focused on “looking for ways to extract raw materials from non-Earth sources” in an effort to “add trillions of dollars to the global GDP”, according to the company’s press release.

An artists’ rendition of what Planetary Resources‘ asteroid mining project might look like. Credit: Wired.com.

Now while hearing this all may make you roll your eyes, it’s not a terribly bad or new idea. Granted it is something straight out of science fiction (see Avatar), but many of the metals we consider “precious” or “rare” on Earth are abundant in the asteroids that populate our solar system. If we find an asteroid made out of pure platinum, the potential fortune it would be worth would be well worth the investment in infrastructure to be able to mine it. Plus, if we find enough minerals in space that we can construct equipment for space exploration and colonization in space, then that saves us a huge amount of money that we would have had to spend for launch. As Bad Astronomer Phil Plait detailed on his blog, Planetary Resources has a very legitimate shot to make this happen. Here are several reasons why:

They have the personnel, talent, and experience. The first thing you need to understand about Planetary Resources is that it isn’t a single or group of billionaires with too much money on their hands who have decided that they want to build their own rockets to got to space; not that there’s anything wrong with that (Richard Branson et al.). This instead is a very serious undertaking set up by some of the leaders of the private space exploration sector with very specific goals in mind and very practical steps in order to achieve them. The founders and co-chairmen of Planetary Resources are Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis. Anderson is the co-founder and chairman of Space Adventures, a space tourism company started in 1998. You may remember Space Adventures because they’re the ones that helped Dennis Tito become the first space tourist back in 2001. The company currently offers zero gravity flights, orbital spaceflights to the ISS, and plans to offer suborbital spaceflights and flights to circumnavigate the Moon. Diamandis may very well be the father of the space tourism industry. He is the founder and Chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, best known for offering the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for private-sector manned spaceflight, a prize that was won in October 2004 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and famed aviation designer Burt Rutan with SpaceShipOne, the world’s first non-government piloted spacecraft. These guys are titans of the space tourism/commercial space exploration industry and have very impressive track records in their accomplishments. In addition to the company’s founders, they also have several former NASA scientists and astronauts working in the company. The first and probably most important is Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources President and Chief Engineer. Lewicki served as Flight Director for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rover missions, and also Mission Manager for the Mars Phoenix lander surface operations. He’s qualified to say the least. The company also has some pretty serious advisers signed on: former astronaut Tom Jones, planetary scientist Sara Seager, and James Cameron. Now, I must not that most news outlets have been making Cameron seem like an investor, but at this point he’s signed on as an adviser. Although I’m not sure what technical expertise he has to offer, unless he thinks making a movie about mining another world actually makes him an expert in the field…

They have the cash. The newly revealed list of Planetary Resources investors is impressive to say the least. It includes Larry Page (co-founder and CEO of Google), Eric Schmidt (Google’s executive chairman), Ross Perot, Jr. (son of the former electronics executive turned presidential candidate, who has been a longtime space enthusiast), and Charles Simonyi (an early manager at Microsoft who led the team that devised Microsoft Office- he’s been a space tourist not once but twice, using some of his personal fortune to pay for trips on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station). These are no pushovers. Each of these men alone could probably finance a space-related endeavor alone, a la Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, but together they have the financial clout  to do just about anything they want…including investing billions of dollars in the technology needed to mine asteroids in space. And hey you know what, it’s great that billionaires like these guys are finally putting there money in places where it can be really useful. Don’t get me wrong, any type of philanthropy is great, and I admire Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and the other billionaires who pledged to donate half of their fortunes to charity, but these space venture capitalists are basically investing in the future of mankind and at least attempting to ensure that future includes space exploration. As Phil Plait heard from Lewicki, “The investors aren’t making decisions based on a business plan or a return on investment. They’re basing their decisions on our vision.” As the company’s press release says, that vision isn’t just about resources or space travel: “Not only is our mission to expand the world’s resource base, but we want to expand people’s access to, and understanding of, our planet and solar system by developing capable and cost-efficient systems.” Now that to me sounds like a great mission.

They have a reasonable plan to accomplish their goals. For the full details of their plan, I’ll direct you back to Phil Plait’s post, but from his conversation with Lewicki, this doesn’t seem like some hare-brained, hell-bent attack on unsuspecting asteroids. As Plait explains, the process has three basic steps:

  1. Find a suitable asteroid by launching small telescopes and probes, possibly by the end of 2013.
  2. Once they identify an asteroid, they won’t start hacking at it, they plan to try to tap the rock for volatiles, elements and molecules with low boiling points such as water, oxygen, nitrogen that can easily be burned off in space (possibly even blown off to help move the asteroid), captured, and then possibly sold. This would be to help that idea of building space components in space, or as Plait suggests, constructing supply depots in space.
  3. Then they’ll actually try to mine the minerals and return them to Earth (or other space colony, like the Moon). There aren’t many details on this aspect of the mission yet, but this step is still a bit in the future. But only a few weeks ago a white paper was written by several researchers (two of whom were from Planetary Resources) about the feasibility of such an endeavor. One possible idea is to alter the asteroid’s orbit so that it moves into an orbit around Earth or the Moon. So they’re working on it and the idea of it happening does not seem totally ludicrous.

In any case, Planetary Resources is an endeavor which I can get behind 100%. They have all of the necessary tools to reach their objectives and are doing it for the right reasons: to engage humanity in space exploration and ensure the preservation of our species. At least that’s what they say and I’m inclined to believe them. For awhile now I’ve been listening to arguments from Neil de Grasse Tyson and ex-Apollo astronauts who have claimed that NASA is doing the country a disservice by not launching another Apollo-type project of human space exploration. And while I agree, that this country does need something huge to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, I don’t think that NASA needs to do it. I think that’s exactly where Planetary Resources fits in. These men and women have the drive and money to undertake this project and just the fact that it’s happening should excite people all over the country. I know I’ll be excited to apply for a job with them once I get my PhD and I’m sure that this 10-year-old wanna-be astronaut will be too.

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SpaceX making things happen…

As this blog has been chronicling since its inception, President Obama’s redirection of America’s manned space program has opened up a gap in the country’s ability to get into space since the end of the shuttle program this summer. Fortunately for us, PayPal founder Elon Musk‘s private company Space Explorations Technologies (SpaceX) looks like it might be the first company to make President Obama’s dream of the commercialization of space flight a reality. After SpaceX’s historic test launch of the Falcon 9 craft back at the end of 2010, that made it the first ever private company to launch into space, the company looks to be poised to make history yet again, namely becoming the first private company ever to launch a spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).

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Space rock stings and heated things…

Hey there everybody. Well, since yours truly was not Raptured this weekend, I guess I should probably post something. Here are some of the things going on in the world of NASA.

This amazing shot shows Endeavor silhouetted against the breaking dawn. Credit: CBS News

  • The much anticipated final launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour finally happened last Monday, May 16. But now Commander Mark Kelly and his crew have a bit of an issue on their hands. Saturday morning the crew discovered that one of the 20,000+ tiles that cover the exterior of the shuttle and protect it from the extreme heat experienced during atmospheric reentry has been damaged. Immediately for many, this will bring back terrible memories of the 2003 Columbia tragedy, when the shuttle and its seven crew members were lost during reentry because of damage that one of the heating tiles had incurred during launch. NASA and the astronauts have and will continue to run tests to diagnose the severity of the damage, but LeRoy Cain, the deputy program manager and chairman of the mission management team, said that the tile had been cleared and that there was no danger to the shuttle from the damaged tile because the structure beneath the tile will still only reach an estimated 219 degrees Fahrenheit–below its maximum temperature capacity of 350 degrees. Let’s hope he’s right and the crew and shuttle will be safely returning on June 1. NASA also announced the date of the final shuttle launch; Atlantis is slated to make its final launch on July 8.
  • At the end of a previous post, I had recapped a precarious situation where NJ officials misplaced a collection of moon rocks brought back from the lunar surface by Apollo 17. Well, just recently police arrested a California woman for attempting to sell a moon rock on eBay. Apparently the bust came after the woman made a $1.7M deal for the rock with an undercover NASA agent. The rock was taken into custody (along with the culprit) and its legitimacy will be tested by NASA officials (are they also the undercover agents or do you think that’s a separate department?). It’s for just such a situation that we need to set up an galactic branch of INTERPOL, maybe GALAPOL? Or really it would just be the solar system (SOLAPOL?) or just for the Moon (LUNAPOL?)…
  • Finally, here’s a very interesting and very well-written article from Forbes magazine that talks about the risks that NASA is making by betting so much on the success of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other start-up commercial launch companies. The extremely interesting article takes a look at SpaceX’s track record and includes an interesting look at the company’s unique business strategy that plans to drastically cut launch prices. However, as the article indicates, delays and failures at SpaceX and other private launch companies has many politicians, NASA employees, and NASA fans (like myself) worried about where the Obama Administration is steering the American space program.

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Scrub-a-dub-dubbed…

Friday’s final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour (imaged sitting alone on the launch pad below) was postponed due to a wiring issue that involved a heater for the shuttle’s hydraulic system.

President Obama, his wife and daughters, and the awe-inspiring Representative Gabrielle Giffords (wife of Endeavour Commander Mark Kelly and survivor of an assassination attempt back in January) were among the thousands in attendance on Friday to watch Endeavour’s final launch and the beginning of the next-to-last space shuttle mission before the fleet is retired by NASA.

Endeavour’s final flight, mission STS-134, is slated to deliver the multi-national collaborative Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) experimenta particle physics experiment module to be mounted on the International Space Station (ISS).  The AMS (pictured below) will study the universe and try to shed some light on how it formed by searching for exotic cosmological particles like antimatter and dark matter while performing precision measurements of cosmic rays composition and flux. Cosmic rays are extremely energetic particles that are constantly bathing the planet and the solar system. We know that most of the low-energy common cosmic rays come from our very own Sun, but it’s the extremely high-energy, rare cosmic rays that we believe originate elsewhere in our galaxy and others that really interest astronomers. Scientists are hoping that mounting AMS on on of the ISS‘s trusses will allow this “Hubble of cosmic rays” to help us better understand these extremely energetic particles.

NASA engineers work on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) that Endeavor will attach to the ISS. Credit: space.com 

Unfortunately, it seem’s like the timeline for fixing Endeavour‘s wiring problem and getting the shuttle off the pad is rather long. The most recent news indicates that Endeavour‘s next opportunity to launch will be next Tuesday, May 10. This isn’t a huge problem for NASA, the mission will launch at some point, but it is kind of a bummer considering the considerable amount of PR and promotion that NASA has been drumming up to commemorate the final shuttle missions. NASA launched a full “TweetUp” of the event with such organizations as the U.S. Space Camp Alumni Association (which the author is a member of) and loads of other NASA-friendly organizations.  The space agency selected 150 special tweeters for the Endeavour launch, including actors LeVar Burton (Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Geordi La Forge) and SNL cast member Seth Green. Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of that hype and planning was wasted a bit now that the launch has been moved back over a week. Hopefully though, the hoopla for this penultimate launch won’t fade by next week and definitely won’t fade before the final shuttle launch of Atlantis scheduled for June 28.

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