The Cancer Spreads: Mars Science Laboratory Delayed Until 2011

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project is failing. But it is not suffering from technical failure en-route to the Red Planet, it hasn’t gotten itself stuck in a Martian sand-trap, it hasn’t even fallen foul of the “Galactic Ghoul”; the MSL is suffering from an overlooked space exploration hazard: bad management. According to today’s (not unexpected) NASA announcement, the MSL will not be launched until 2011.

I had a very bad feeling about today’s press conference, and it looks like my fears were justified. Due to technical difficulties, the launch of the MSL is being delayed by two years, as the overrun will ensure the mission misses the next Mars launch window. So I have to ask: why is an over-budget, behind schedule, poorly managed mission being allowed to sap the budgets of other NASA programs when the solution is so obvious?
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Alien Worlds: Extrasolar Planets Imaged for First Time

Two of the three confirmed planets orbiting HR 8799 indicated as
Two of the three confirmed planets orbiting HR 8799 indicated as “b” and “c” on the image above. “b” is the ~7 Jupiter-mass planet orbiting at about 70 AU, “c” is the ~10 Jupiter-mass planet orbiting the star at about 40 AU. Due to the brightness of the central star, it has been blocked and appears blank in this image to increase visibility of the planets (Gemini Observatory)

The day has finally come. We now have direct, infrared and optical observations of planets orbiting other stars. Yesterday, reports from two independent sources surfaced, one from the Gemini and Keck II observatories and the second from the Hubble Space Telescope. Brace yourself for an awe-inspiring display of planets orbiting two stars…

The Gemini/Keck observations were carried out using adaptive optics technology to correct in real-time for atmospheric turbulence. The stunning images of a multiple planetary star system were then constructed from infrared emissions (the image, top, was constructed by Keck II as a follow-up to to the Gemini observations). The system in question is centred around a star called HR 8799, approximately 130 light years from Earth and in the constellation of Pegasus. The entire press release can be found at the Gemini observatory site, where they give the discovery a full run-down.

On the same day, the Hubble Space Telescope team also released images of one extrasolar planet, only this time in optical wavelengths. Although the exoplanet in Hubble’s images is less obvious than the infrared Gemini/Keck II images, incredible detail has been attained, showing a ring of dust around the star Fomalhaut (located in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus). Fomalhaut is 25 light years away and the star’s daughter planet (Fomalhaut b) is only a little under 3 Jupiter masses.

Estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter's mass, the planet, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Austrinus (NASA/ESA)
Estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter’s mass, the planet, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Austrinus (NASA/ESA)

For more news on these discoveries, check out the Gemini/Keck II press release and the Hubble announcement. I’ll leave the ground-breaking announcement to the guys who have spent many years working to achieve this monumental goal.

Wow.

Sources: Gemini, ESA

EAS Space Junk is Toast, Re-Entry Over Pacific Ocean Likely

The EAS burning up during re-entry as I'd imagine it. Credit: NASA (Earth cloud backdrop). Rendering of EAS re-entry: Ian O'Neill

It looks like the Early Ammonia Servicer (EAS) that has been orbiting Earth for the past 15 months had a fight with the Earth’s atmosphere… and lost. Due to re-enter at some time today (Sunday), an eagle-eyed amateur astronomer noted when the EAS was due to make an orbital pass… but the ammonia-filled space station cast-off missed its November 2nd appointment.

Thomas Dorman of Horizon City, Texas, observed the object fly overhead on November 1st. Dorman was using a low-light camera to attempt to spot the speeding debris earlier today, “but the EAS did not appear,” he said. “I think it is safe to assume EAS has reentered.”

It is most likely that the EAS disintegrated and any surviving bits either fell into an ocean (somewhere) or dropped harmlessly in a sparsely populated region. No reports of a fireball or half a refrigerator randomly dropping into someone’s back yard have surfaced, so my money is on NASA’s reckoning that the EAS would fall harmlessly into water.

Update (Nov. 3rd):
News from SpaceWeather.com as to the location of re-entry:

US Space Command reports that the Early Ammonia Servicer (EAS) probably reentered Earth’s atmosphere on Nov. 3rd at 04:51:00 GMT +/- 1 minute over the following coordinates: 48° S, 151° E. That would place the fireball over the Indian Ocean [Pacific Ocean] south of Tasmania where sightings are unlikely.

Update (Nov. 4th):
Refer to Target Australia: The EAS Splashdown Location

Aside: As it’s Sunday and I’ve not been writing much, I decided to have a dabble with Photoshop and create a quick visualization of what the EAS may look like as it’s falling through the atmosphere (above). I used NASA images for the Earth atmosphere backdrop and the original 2007 space station image of the EAS tumbling in space

Source: SpaceWeather.com

Watch Your Heads! Space Station Junk to Hit Earth Today

Somewhere, sometime today, the Early Ammonia Servicer (EAS) will drop to Earth at 100 mph.

The EAS as photographed by the ISS crew in 2007 (NASA)
The EAS as photographed by the ISS crew in 2007 (NASA)

A huge piece of space junk discarded from the space station in 2007 will drop through the atmosphere some time today (Sunday). The Early Ammonia Servicer, otherwise known as the EAS, was detached from the orbiting outpost as its services were no longer required. The double-refrigerator-sized piece of equipment weighs 635 kg (1400 lb) and is filled with toxic ammonia. Although NASA believes most of its mass will disintegrate during re-entry, there’s a real chance of up to 15 pieces of the EAS reaching the ground, the largest piece could weigh up to 17.5 kg (40 lb).

But here’s the funny thing, as the EAS is currently skirting along the outermost reaches of the atmosphere, we are uncertain as to when, or where, the re-entry will take place. NASA and U.S. Space Surveillance Network scientists have done well to narrow the re-entry window down to one day. Fortunately, 70% of the planet is covered in water, so we should be fine. But should any parts of the EAS find solid ground, NASA has warned that we shouldn’t approach any suspicious-looking (and probably steaming) bits of meteorite in case the EAS still has some ammonia on board…
Continue reading “Watch Your Heads! Space Station Junk to Hit Earth Today”

“Under My Watch, NASA Will Inspire the World Again” – Barack Obama

And you know what? I believe him.

Obama vows to make NASA a priority (NASA/AP)
Obama vows to make NASA a priority (NASA/AP)

In only three days, the USA will take to the polls and vote in their next president. Presently, Sen. Barack Obama (Democrat) is holding the lead in the opinion polls, in front of Sen. John McCain (Republican). Opinion polls, although indicative of the current mood of voters, are by no means fool-proof, this election could go either way.

This is the first US election I have been in the country for, and from what I’ve seen and heard from both leading candidates have been worrying yet significant. It is no secret that the US is suffering every “crisis” in the book (housing crisis, credit crisis, economic crisis, health care crisis…), but the one election issue that is key in my mind is the growing space exploration crisis. Whilst this may be low on the list of national priorities at the moment, the next few years will be critical to the international balance of space exploration dominance for decades to come. The next few years, if unchecked, could be the most challenging period NASA has ever faced.

The US space agency needs to be nurtured and led by a strong president and vice-president who understands the position of building a powerful position in space exploration. In my view, there’s only two men up to the task
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Phoenix is Alive! Just in Time for Halloween

Steve the Cat celebrates Halloween on the Phoenix Mars Lander (NASA/SteveTheCat.com)
Steve the Cat celebrates Halloween on the Phoenix Mars Lander (NASA/SteveTheCat.com)

After an uncertain couple of days, NASA has regained contact with the ailing Mars lander. Yesterday, scientists announced they were having difficulty communicating with Phoenix after the on board electronics were switched into “safe mode” on Tuesday. It seems likely that the robot was switched into this low-energy state due to the increasingly cold weather — plus a Sun-blocking dust storm — triggering a low-power fault.

Although scientists were concerned they may not regain communications with the lander, they were able get in touch with Phoenix late on Thursday during a two hour period when the lander’s electronics were powered up. Now scientists know that Phoenix will automatically reboot itself every 19 hours, and then power up again for two hours to carry out very limited science duties.

NASA was able to transmit commands via NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter which passed overhead during this two-hour period of opportunity. This goes to show how little solar energy is being collected from the meagre sunlight as Mars enters winter (the Sun is very low on the Martian horizon, and it will soon drop out of sight, sealing the fate of Phoenix).

However, before Phoenix succumbs to a low energy coma, NASA is trying to get as many science activities out of it before it is frozen solid.

It also seems fitting that the highly successful NASA mission should come back from the brink of death on Halloween. So, “Happy Halloween Phoenix!” We all hope you last a few more weeks…

Source: AP

Has Phoenix… Died?

Could this be the end of Phoenix? (NASA/JPL)
The end of the line? (NASA/JPL)

Late on Tuesday, NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander entered “safe mode.”

Before this, NASA scientists were working to conserve power by shutting down non-critical systems. By powering down instrumentation such as the heaters that warm Phoenix’s robotic arm, valuable energy was hoped to be saved, perhaps giving the lander some extra time to carry out its final experiments before complete loss of sunlight as Mars’ northern hemisphere enters winter. But it seems that a possible dust storm and the falling temperatures (down to -96°C) may have caused a low-power fault, triggering the precautionary safe-mode.

Although scientists were optimistic about communicating with its on board systems, to send commands to bring Phoenix back online, it seems time (and energy) has run out…
Continue reading “Has Phoenix… Died?”

The Pessimism About Modern Space Flight

Epic fail? I think not (<a href='http://current.com/items/89164753_epic_fail_rocket_carrying_three_satellites_crashes_into_pacific_ocean'>current.com</a>)
Epic fail? I think not (credit: current.com, edit: Ian O'Neill)

On September 28th, Elon Musk proved he wasn’t a dreamer and blasted the world’s first commercial rocket — Falcon 1 — into Earth orbit. SpaceX have put their previous launch failures behind them, rightfully filing them under “learning curve.”

The team at NASA’s Phoenix Mars mission control have started to switch off instrumentation on the robotic lander after five months of astounding science (even after surviving the “7-minutes of terror” on May 25th, finding proof of water, overcoming technical issues and multiplying our understanding of the chemistry on an alien planet). Plus the armada of satellites orbiting the Red Planet. Oh yes, and those crazy rovers that just keep on rollin’.

The New Horizons Pluto mission has just passed its 1000th day on the epic journey to Pluto, Charon and the Kuiper Belt. The Cassini probe is still doing its mission orbiting Saturn (since 1997). Oh, and the European Venus Express doing its quiet cruise around Earth’s evil twin planet.

The International Space Station is still going strong, proving on every day that passes that humans can live in space (no matter how difficult it is, we can do it, months at a time — but we need to work harder at zero-G plumbing!). Other nations are pushing into space too; China carried out its first spacewalk in September, India blasted its first lunar mission into space last week and the Japanese lunar orbiter just broke the bad news that there ain’t no ice in them thar craters

…lest not forget the robust Russian Soyuz space vehicle, having just reached its 100th flight!
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IBEX Will Spread its Wings Today

Probably one of the coolest missions designed to study the termination shock (the region of space where the solar wind and interstellar medium interact) located a little under 100 AU from the Sun, will be launched today (Sunday). The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) will be carried into space on board a Pegasus rocket installed under a L-1011 carrier aircraft from the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific (about 2500 miles from Hawaii in the direction of Australia). Out of interest, the aircraft will take off from the same region that SpaceX use to send their Falcon 1 rocket (and first ever commercial orbital vehicle) into space…

IBEX inside the Pegasus launch vehicle before transport from Vandenberg Air Force Base on October 11th (NASA)

The termination shock is a mysterious region of space as yet to be explored. Although Voyager 1 and 2 passed through this point, it is of critical importance to astrophysicists to measure the temporal and spatial changes at the boundary between the Solar System and the rest of interstellar space, as my previous Universe Today article explains:

In 2004, Voyager 1 hit it and in 2006, Voyager 2 hit it. The first probe flew through the termination shock at around 94 AU (8 billion miles away); the second measured it at only 76 AU (7 billion miles). This result alone suggests that the termination shock may be irregularly shaped and/or variable depending on solar activity. Before the Voyager missions, the termination shock was theorized, but there was little observational evidence until the two veteran probes traversed the region. The termination shock is of paramount importance to understanding the nature of the outer reaches of the solar system as, counter-intuitively, the Sun’s activity increases, the region beyond the termination shock (the heliosheath) becomes more efficient at blocking deadly cosmic rays. During solar minimum, it becomes less efficient at blocking cosmic rays. – Excerpt from IBEX Mission Will View the Final Frontier of the Solar System

So how will IBEX aid astrophysicists? It will count energetic neutral atoms (or ENAs for short) originating from the turbulent interaction region of the termination shock and build up a distribution of where the ENAs come from.

The Pegasus launch system in action (Univ. of Colarado/NASA)
The Pegasus launch system in action (Univ. of Colarado/NASA)

Scientists have known for a long time that neutral atoms appear to be generated at the termination shock. The solar wind carries energetic charged particles (or ions, mainly protons) into the far reaches of the heliosphere which eventually encounter interstellar neutral atoms. It is important to keep in mind at this point that any interstellar ions trying to get into the heliosphere are swept aside as the Solar System carries on its merry way through the galaxy; the heliospheric magnetic field deflects them. Therefore, only neutral interstellar particles are allowed in.

As the solar wind protons interact with the interstellar medium at the termination shock, they collide with the interstellar neutral atoms. When this happens, a mechanism known as charge exchange occurs. Electrons are ripped from these neutral interstellar atoms, creating very energetic neutral hydrogen atoms (i.e. 1× solar wind proton + 1× interstellar neutral atom electron). These ENAs are then blasted away from the point of charge exchange in a straight line (as energetic neutral atoms are not deflected by magnetic fields).

IBEX will be ideally placed to detect these ENAs whilst it orbits Earth so a better idea about termination shock dynamics can be gained. So, IBEX is set for launch on Sunday at 1:48 pm EDT during an eight minute launch window on board an aircraft-launched Pegasus rocket. I can’t wait for the results it will return, IBEX will, quite literally, paint a picture of how our Solar System interacts with the interstellar medium…

For more information on IBEX:

Original source: NASA

Hubble Malfunction Pushes Atlantis Service Mission into 2009

Hubble malfunction forces NASA to delay Atlantis launch until January (Hubblesite.org)
Hubble malfunction forces NASA to delay Atlantis launch until January (Hubblesite.org)

The fifth and final service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope is to be postponed until January as a mystery malfunction on Saturday crippled the observatory’s ability to transmit data to Earth. The STS-125 mission was set to launch in two weeks so essential upgrades to Hubble could be carried out, but Space Shuttle Atlantis will have to be stood down from her Cape Canaveral launch pad until NASA engineers can get to the root of the malfunction…
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