Sunday, June 24, 2007

Space News Update - June 2007

Since the last Space News roundup last year, there have been a lot of developments.

Space tourists Anousheh Ansari and Charles Simonyi completed trips to the International Space Station. In both cases they launched on Soyuz flights from Baikonur -- Ansari in September 2006 and Simonyi in April 2007.

In January 2007, a NASA astronaut who had flown on the July 2006 flight of Discovery to the International Space Station had a very public career-ending breakdown involving a love triangle and an alleged assault on a perceived rival. As a result of this incident, however, NASA has begun studies on the psychological dynamics of crews who will be isolated for 30 to 36 months on a Mars mission.

A year earlier, on January 19,2006, NASA launched the New Horizons space probe from Cape Canaveral -- the rocket was a Delta V, with a Centaur second stage and a STAR 48B solid rocket third stage, all of which served to accelerate New Horizons to very high speed. About nine hours after launch, New Horizons crossed the orbit of the Moon, outward bound for a gravity assist from Jupiter on February 28, 2007 to send it on its way to Pluto. The encounter was a success -- shortly, the spacecraft will be put into interplanetary cruise mode, with Pluto encounter set for July, 2015.

During the Jupiter encounter, flight controllers at JPL and the science team used the opportunity to calibrate the probe's cameras and science instruments. Close-up photos of Jupiter and its moon system haven't been available since the Galileo mission ended in 2003. The following is a view of an eruption of the volcano Tvashtar on Io, one of Jupiter's moons.

Image Credit: Release date: May 14, 2007 -- NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

On March 20, SpaceX, a privately owned corporation, successfully launched their Falcon 1 booster, which achieved every important test objective except actually making it into orbit. A problem with the second stage -- fuel sloshing in the tank causing the vehicle to oscillate and creating conditions for an early engine shutdown -- resulted in the rocket not achieving orbit. However, SpaceX were confident enough in their results to move their launch program to full operational status -- their next Falcon 1 launch in September will be the US Navy's TacSat, followed by a communications satellite launch for the government of Malaysia.

In May, the head of NASA, Dr. Michael Griffin, took some heat for stating that he was unsure that global warming trends were "...a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change." These remarks were interpreted as NASA toeing the American government's ideological line on climate change and on science in general. The thought of science being subject to ideology makes my head hurt, and it concerns me that the Americans didn't learn this from observing the Soviet Union and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

There were earlier incidents involving a 24 year old presidential appointee in NASA's Public Affairs Office pursuing a religious and political agenda, and these have reflected badly on NASA. In these incidents, a web designer was told to add the word "theory" after every mention of the Big Bang and there was an attempt to limit media access to a senior climate researcher -- effectively to muzzle him.

Earlier this month, on June 5, the MESSENGER probe successfully made its second encounter with Venus, shaping its orbit for the first of 3 flybys of Mercury in 2008 and 2009, to be followed by entry into orbit around Mercury in 2011.

In a mission delayed by hailstorm damage to the fuel tank, NASA launched the shuttle Atlantis (mission STS 117) to the International Space Station on June 8. In a series of spacewalks, the Atlantis astronauts installed a new set of solar panels for the station, getting it prepared to handle the power demands of the Japanese and European laboratories that will be added later. After installation of the additional solar panel unit, Russian control computers crashed, apparently due to power issues. The computer problem was subsequently corrected over a period of several days.

Image Credit: NASA -- STS117 Mission -- S117-E-08003 (19 June 2007) -- Backdropped by the blackness of space and Earth's horizon, the International Space Station moves away from the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Earlier the STS-117 and Expedition 15 crews concluded about eight days of cooperative work onboard the shuttle and station. Undocking of the two spacecraft occurred at 9:42 a.m. (CDT) on June 19, 2007. Astronaut Lee Archambault, STS-117 pilot, was at the controls for the departure and fly-around, which gave Atlantis' crew a look at the station's new expanded configuration.

Atlantis also brought Clayton Anderson to the ISS, a replacement for Flight Engineer Sunita Williams, who had been aboard the ISS for the previous six months. Williams holds 3 records for female space travellers -- when Atlantis returned safely to Earth at Edwards Air Force Base on June 22, she set the duration record for 195 days in space. She has also been on 4 spacewalks totalling over 29 hours. The previous duration record for a female astronaut had been held by Dr. Shannon Lucid at 188 days, 179 of which were spent on the Mir space station.

Next month (target July 7), NASA will launch the Dawn mission -- an ion-drive powered space probe which will travel to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres to conduct close-up reconnaissance of the asteroid belt. here is a brief video narrated by Leonard Nimoy (Spock!) which provides an overview of the Dawn mission.

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