Artist impression of Cassini orbiting Saturn (NASA)
In a previous Astroengine article, I explored the possibility that the variation in radioactive decay rates may be synchronised with Earth’s orbital variations in distance from the Sun. Naturally, this would be a huge discovery, possibly questioning the fundamental law that nuclear decay rates are constant, no matter where the material is in the Universe. One of the conclusions in the original decay rate research suggested that we should attach a sample of a radioisotope onto an interplanetary mission far beyond the orbit of Earth. By doing this, the relationship between decay rates and distance from the Sun should become obvious, and terrestrial decay rate variations can be tested.
But wait a minute, let’s have a think about this. Haven’t we already sent radioactive material on board interplanetary missions? What about all that plutonium we use to power interplanetary probes like Voyager, Pioneer, Galileo or Cassini? Plutonium is pretty radioactive… isn’t it? Continue reading →
The Long-March II-F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-7 spaceship plus three crew blasts off (Xinhua/Li Gang)
China has high hopes to be the third nation to successfully carry out a spacewalk after launching three taikonauts into orbit today. According to officials, the Shenzhou-7 spacecraft has successfully completed its first orbital manoeuvres and is currently orbiting 343 km above the Earth. The world now waits for news that the first Chinese astronaut has successfully left the capsule to explore the vacuum of space for the first time. It all sounds rather exciting doesn’t it?
But this feat pails into insignificance when compared with another stunning achievement. The Chinese authorities have shown that not only can they blast man into space – following in the pioneering footsteps of Russia and the USA – they also have the ability to foresee the future. Either that, or they’ve found a way to travel through time. Amazing as it may sound, it really did happen; transcripts of a “future” conversation between the Shenzhou-7 astronauts, whilst in orbit, were published on the official Chinese news website hours before the rocket engines had even ignited…
So far, so good. A static fire test for the upcoming Flight 4 is a success for SpaceX and Falcon 1 (SpaceX)
The run-up to Flight 4 of SpaceX Falcon 1 appears to proceeding nicely. Scheduled for a late-September launch, the rocket has been rolled out onto its South Pacific launch pad and prepared for launch. Today saw the successful static fire test of the Merlin 1C engines (pictured above), and according to the SpaceX press release, “no major issues came up.” However, after detailed analysis of test data, engineers decided to replace the second stage engine LOX supply line as a precaution. Apparently, Falcon 1 should operate fine without the replacement, but SpaceX will be extra cautious ahead of launch some time over the next couple of days.
For now, the exact launch time is being kept secret, and in light of last month’s Flight 3 failure, Flight 4 will be critical to the future of the private space company. Our hopes are high for the first successful commercial launch very soon…
A rare sight. Atlantis has been rolled out to its launchpad for the October 11th Hubble mission, whilst Endeavour will remain on standby in its capacity as the STS-400 rescue mission (NASA)
This is a historic photo opportunity. Rarely do we see two shuttles rolled out onto different launchpads at the same time, but this scene has an extra poignancy to it: this is the last time two shuttles will be rolled out at the same time, ever.
All set for the fifth and final Hubble servicing mission on October 10th, Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-125) will carry the crew of seven to install two new instruments on the 18-year old orbiting telescope. They will also give the observatory an in-orbit overhaul; replacing the Fine Guidance Sensor and six gyroscopes to boost the operational lifespan of Hubble till 2013.
However, due to the unusual orbit of Hubble, Atlantis must have a back-up plan that doesn’t include the International Space Station. The October mission will call up a standby rescue mission called STS-400 – in this case Endeavour – that will be readied for launch in preparation for the unlikely event of an emergency during the STS-125 Hubble repair… Continue reading →
When the Galileo probe used the Earth for a gravitational slingshot, an anomaly in its velocity was observed (NASA)
This is a captivating mystery. In 1990 and 1992 when the Jupiter probe Galileo used the Earth for gravitational assists (or “slingshots”), ground-based observers noticed a small (unexpected) boost in velocity as the spacecraft approached Earth. A boost in a few millimetres per second had also been observed in the slingshot of NASA’s NEAR probe two years previously. The same was seen in the flybys of Cassini (in 1999), MESSENGER and Rosetta (in 2005). Many explanations have been put forward – including my favourite that it could be dark matter in Earth orbit kicking our robotic explorers around – but flyby anomalies may have a more mundane explanation.
In keeping with Occam’s Razor (i.e. the simplest explanation is usually the right one), a short paper has been published suggesting that flyby anomalies can be accounted for by using conventional physics… Continue reading →
The last look at GOCE before it is packed away inside the rocket two half-shells (ESA)
As you probably know, I am a huge fan of the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) as it is the sleekest, most aesthetically pleasing spacecraft I have ever seen. Rather than looking like a generic satellite, GOCE has been constructed in the shape of an aerodynamic spaceship as its orbit is so low that atmospheric drag will be a factor. Adding to the wow! factor is the GOCE ion engine giving a small but steady thrust to make sure GOCE doesn’t lose altitude during its Sun-synchronous orbit. Combine all these factors with the incredibly advanced science it will be carrying out during its 20 month lifetime, this is about as advanced as a terrestrial satellite can get.
So, ahead of its launch on September 10th, GOCE has been packed safely inside the Breeze-KM Upper Stage at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. Next time the craft sees light will be three-minutes after launch in six days time… Continue reading →
Cryosat-2. Resembles something Da Vinci would have designed (ESA)
ESA Cryosat-2 is set for launch in 2009 and it is the second attempt at getting the technology into orbit. Back in 2005, the original CryoSat was lost after a rocket malfunction caused it to fall short of the desired orbit, but much like the Phoenix Mars Lander story (i.e. it rose from the ashes of the lost Mars Polar Lander mission, recycled spare parts and reassembled the robot), Cryosat will fly once more. So what makes this mission so important? Well, it will carry out an essential three-year survey, measuring the thickness of global ice sheets.
But why am I really mentioning it? Like many ESA missions, the designs of their satellites and robots are so cool, and Cryosat-2 is no different. From some angles it looks like a sturdy intergalactic battleship, from others it looks like it was painstakingly designed by Da Vinci. Sometimes it even looks like a flying shed. In my books, that’s one interesting satellite. The science isn’t bad either… Continue reading →
"So what do you do?" "Oh, I'm just the Shuttle rocket engine crane operator..." (NASA/Kim Shiflett)
If you thought that Shuttle launches were easy, think again. Preparing each Shuttle launch is a laborious task, taking several months and thousands of NASA employees. Pictured above is one of Atlantis’ Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) being installed back on June 11th at Kennedy Space Center’s Orbiter Processing Facility bay 1, and I think this image epitomizes what space flight is all about. Rocket science is complex, we know that, but when I see just how big these things are, I gain a better respect for how far we have come. Best thing is, this is an image of a 23 year old space vehicle, just imagine what the future Ares V will look like… Continue reading →
Whether you are surprised by this news or not, it is a big development for the future of NASA. An internal email within the space agency has instructed staff to begin preliminary planning for a feasibility study into extending the life of the Space Shuttle fleet until 2015. This isn’t a one year extension, this isn’t just one extra flight, this is a full five year extension beyond the scheduled decommissioning date set by NASA.
This email, although downplayed by NASA sources, appears to show a U-turn in the political climate behind the agency’s closed doors. So what prompted the decision to commence a feasibility study? Could the Shuttle be safely flown after 2010? Continue reading →
Gary McKinnon being interviewed via phone by Jerry Pippin (jerrypippin.com)
Gary McKinnon, a British computer analyst, has failed in his appeal against extradition to the US. McKinnon is accused of accessing 97 US military and NASA computers during his search for information about a possible US government conspiracy to cover up the existence of UFOs. According to the Glasgow-born 42 year old, the computers he accessed were totally unprotected and surprisingly easy to hack. However, the US government says his actions were malicious and the biggest breach of US government computers of all time. McKinnon’s activities allowed him access to 16 NASA computers between 2001 and 2002.
For the record, it is my opinion that McKinon is the victim of his own curiosity. He most certainly is not an organized terrorist wanting to bring down the US government. What’s more the UK has tough laws that he can be prosecuted by, so why is he being extradited to a country where he has never set foot before? Having followed this unfolding story for some years, I feel compelled to mention it on Astroengine.com. This man should not be extradited. The apparent ease at which this individual walked into NASA networks is astonishing; it’s not McKinon that needs to be taken to court, it’s NASA’s Internet security experts who need to be taken to task… Continue reading →