First Images of LCROSS Centaur Impact Plume Released

The lunar dust plume as seen 15 seconds after Centaur impact. The size of the plume was approximately 6-8 km wide at this time (NASA)
The lunar dust plume as seen 15 seconds after Centaur impact. The size of the plume was approximately 6-8 km wide at this time (NASA)

Rising a mile high and up to 5 miles wide, the impact plume of the spent Centaur rocket was observed by the NASA LCROSS shepherding probe before it travelled through the cloud of dust and crashed 4 minutes later.

The lack of an observed dust plume has been the cause of much confusion to people who watched the events unfold in the early hours of October 9th. NASA publicised the impact event as if it was going to be an explosion of dust (and possibly ice), observable from telescopes on Earth. To say the mission finale was a disappointment is an understatement.

Following the impact, NASA responded by saying that although infrared images proved the Centaur crashed on target (and a 20 meter-wide crater was created), the lack of an accompanying plume could mean that the mass hit the side of a crater (therefore blasting debris at an angle), or it hit a region devoid of dust and water ice, or the plume was simply less obvious than expected. Now that NASA has released new images of the impact, it would appear the latter may be the case; the plume was just less spectacular than the promo videos depicted.

Nine instruments on board LCROSS captured impact sequence, but until now it was unknown whether an impact plume occurred. Now NASA has confirmed that an impact flash, plume and crater were all generated.

There is a clear indication of a plume of vapor and fine debris,” said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS principal investigator. “Within the range of model predictions we made, the ejecta brightness appears to be at the low end of our predictions and this may be a clue to the properties of the material the Centaur impacted.”

So the number-crunching continues as we wait to find out whether water was contained within that plume. However, judging by the faint cloud of ejecta, I’m thinking dreams of a H2O reservoir in Cabeus crater might be short lived.

Source: NASA, LA Times. A special thanks to @jamerz3294 for the tip!

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Where Are The Protests Now?

Where's the protest?
Where's the protest?

In a discussion I seem to keep having these days when I mention that human spaceflight is actually a valuable endeavour for a nation, I’m usually met with a look of incongruity. Then the question: What has space exploration ever done for us?

I used to get a little angry about this question (of course space exploration is important!) but in actuality, I have to explain the answer because it isn’t necessarily obvious. By pushing into space, a nation can enrich its technology, improve education, boost employment in skilled areas, thereby improving the economy and generally improving a nation’s standing in the world. That’s the eco-friendly version. There are other applications such as military prowess, strategic advantage and business potential. Unfortunately, doing bold things in space requires money, and to get money you need to convince the government that it’s worth spending money on. Last time I looked, there’s no Space Race 2 going on, so we can’t rely on politics to see the necessity of space flight.

However, the US has invested billions of dollars in the exploration of space, and although NASA is a money-hungry entity, it produces results and has shaped the world as we know it. Granted, the US space agency was built on Cold War ideals and was hinged around the sole purpose of beating the Soviets to the Moon, but modern NASA is still relevant, if not more so.

Rockets and healthcare

From space, and back to Earth with a bump.

I watched a series of fascinating videos of the protests that went on in Washington D.C. on September 12th concerning President Obama’s healthcare reform plans. The Tea Party (not Twinnings, or Boston… some other tea party that didn’t have a lot of tea) exploded to life to the sound of tens of thousands of voices protesting “socialist” healthcare. Apparently, a nationalized healthcare system is a bad thing. The arguments against Obama’s plan seem rather outlandish to me, and a hardcore group of protesters (not all the protesters, just a few apparently missing a sanity gene) accused the US President of being a “communist,” “socialist,” “Marxist” and (most shockingly) a “Nazi.”

So, here we are, with a field-full of rabid protesters that have been whipped up into a frenzy by the media, special interest groups and political antagonizers. These geniuses see a nationalized healthcare system as a socialist agenda. Of course, this means communism is just down the garden path. Last time I looked, the UK wasn’t a communist state, and although the British National Health Service (NHS) isn’t perfect, it’s a damn sight better than the US health insurance insanity.

The point I’m trying to make is that tens of thousands of people descended on the US capital to protest a healthcare bill that actually seems quite sensible. Unfortunately, this huge group believe this bill is actually a government conspiracy intended to dupe the public, bankrupt the country and control the nation.

NASA losses

Now let’s wind back the clock to last year, when it was announced NASA would be shedding thousands of jobs when the space shuttle is retired. More recently, a task group was formed to discuss NASA’s options considering its budget isn’t going to grow any time soon — unfortunately, Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” can’t be done because the Constellation Program will cost too much. Now the Augustine Commission has set out some plans that may curtail NASA’s big projects, possibly even cancelling Constellation.

To top all this off, there is a 5-year gap (minimum) between the shuttle being retired and Constellation taking over (if that even happens), that means there will be at least 5 years the US will have without a manned launch vehicle. Yes, the US has gone through this before (between the end of the Apollo Program in 1970 and the Shuttle Program in 1982), but this time we could lose access to the space station, a $100 billion project the US is heavily invested in.

Fortunately, US companies are seeing business opportunities in space, so given enough funding, start-ups like SpaceX could start ferrying NASA astronauts into LEO sooner rather than later. There are also other nations involved in the space station and they can give us a lift into space. Unfortunately, apart from the Shuttle, there’s only one other spacecraft that’s human-rated in the world. That’s Soyuz.

Russian Roulette

Soyuz is great, it’s a sturdy vehicle and it’s received little complaint from the astronauts and cosmonauts that have been ferried around in it (well, most of the time). The Russian space agency will basically be offering NASA taxi rides into space so the US can still use the International Space Station.

The cost? $50 million per seat.

Wow, what a bargain. The space shuttle costs the best part of a billion dollars to launch every time. Compare that with $50 million, it almost seems as if this 5-year gap is a good thing. It might save NASA some money!

However, in the process of retiring the shuttle, skilled US jobs will be lost. Even the transition from the shuttle program to Constellation will cause a re-shuffle of NASA employees. Last year, Senator Bill Nelson pointed out that shedding jobs from the US space agency, only to rely on a Russian launch vehicle, will have the effect of generating jobs in Russia. This might seem like an over-exaggeration, but it may indirectly be the case.

The added concern is that the $50 million value per Soyuz seat could increase. After all, US-Russia relations aren’t exactly toasty, the Russian space agency could set its own price for taxi rides to the space station. NASA money will be spent, not on advancing US spaceflight capabilities, but on another nation’s spaceflight capabilities. Sure, NASA and Roscosmos are co-operating now, but both are government-backed entities and that co-operation could turn south during the next East-West political upset.

Conclusion

In summary, until US spaceflight companies develop human-rated space vehicles, or until the Constellation Project (or equivalent) is finished, the US will be wholly dependent on Russia for human spaceflight. NASA will be paying a premium rate for that privilege.

So when I see thousands of individuals crowding on Capitol Hill, angrily protesting about the idiotic belief that the President of the USA is on the verge of creating a communist state, I think about NASA and the fact that the US space agency has been forced to pay for seats on board a spaceship maintained by an ex-communist state the US government is having problems with.

Where are the protests now?

The H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-1) Photographed… from 300km Below

The Japanese HTV-1 taken 3 days after launch at an altitude below 300km (©Ralf Vandebergh)
The Japanese HTV-1 taken 3 days after launch at an altitude below 300km (©Ralf Vandebergh)

I first came across Ralf Vandebergh’s outstanding astrophotography when I was inquiring about a “mystery” object that appeared to be stalking the International Space Station (ISS) in July. As it turned out, it wasn’t a UFO, it was in fact a Russian Progress re-supply space vehicle testing out a new automated docking procedure with the orbiting outpost. Vandebergh managed to image the ISS and Progress vehicle with amazing clarity from his home in Wittem, the Netherlands.

HTV-1 approaches the ISS on Sept. 17th (©Ralf Vandebergh)
HTV-1 approaches the ISS on Sept. 17th (©Ralf Vandebergh)

Today, he’s done it again, only this time his target was the first flight of the robotic Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, HTV-1.

On day 3 of the mission (Sept. 13th) to supply the ISS with over 4 tonnes of food, water, fuel and equipment, Vandebergh captured this incredibly detailed picture of the vehicle, speeding overhead at an altitude of just under 300km (pictured top). He also took a shot of the HTV-1 as it was approaching the ISS on Sept. 17th (right).

I’m totally in awe of these shots, and there’s a lot more where this came from. In Vandebergh’s gallery there are pictures of spacewalking astronauts, shuttle cockpits and amazingly detailed portraits of the ISS… all taken with a camera, through a telescope, on terra firma. Enjoy.

For reference, here’s a shot of the HTV-1 from the ISS shortly before docking:

The HTV-1 approaches the space station on Sept. 17th (NASA)
The HTV-1 approaches the space station on Sept. 17th (NASA)

A Visor Filled With Awesomeness

The space station as reflected in John "Danny" Olivas' spacesuit visor on September 3, 2009 (NASA)
The space station as reflected in John "Danny" Olivas' spacesuit visor on September 3, 2009 (NASA)

When I came across this image in NASA’s Human Space Flight gallery, I stopped. I was looking for the “perfect” shuttle image during the STS-128 mission to the International Space Station earlier this month, but I got sucked into browsing through the hundreds of EVA photographs NASA has stockpiled in their archives.

This particular scene was taken by NASA astronaut John "Danny" Olivas when he was out on a spacewalk installing a new Ammonia Tank Assembly. The EVA was over six hours long and Olivas was able to do some digital photography in that time. This picture shows his spacesuit helmet visor, with a reflection of the camera at arms length below.

Also visible in the reflections in the visor are various components of the station and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang, mission specialist, anchored to a Canadarm2 mobile foot restraint. —NASA

The reflection captures so much detail. The curvature of the Earth can be seen in the distance, with space station solar arrays jutting in front. Even the two docked Soyuz vehicles (TMA-14 and TMA-15) are in shot. To top it all off, ESA astronaut Fuglesang is dangling in the vacuum of space attached to a robotic arm.

Quite simply, awesome.

Space Junk: It’s Not As Bad As It Looks (what?)

space-junk-geo-02

According to NASA, these new images of space junk orbiting Earth make the situation look more dire than it really is.

I suppose that would be like a store manager looking at the shop floor of Toys ‘R’ Us on the day after Thanksgiving rubbing his chin and saying, “You see, I told you it would be quiet.” In actuality, the shop would be rammed full of bargain hunters, and by the looks of things, Earth orbit (from LEO to geostationary altitudes) is rammed full of junk.

But space is big, so although it might look a little grim up there, it’s very unlikely a spaceship will collide with anything. A statement from NASA agrees:

The dots are not to scale, and space is a very big place. Collisions between large objects are fairly rare. The orbit of each piece is well known. If any debris comes into the path of an operating NASA satellite, flight controllers will maneuver the satellite out of harm’s way.

This may be the case, but I would argue that as a space-faring race, us humans have barely dipped our toes in the cosmos yet. It’s going to take a lot more rocket launches and space littering before we can have routine access to space. If it looks like this now, in the first decade of the 21st century, how much junk is going to be up there in 20, 50 or 100 years time when manned space flight is commonplace?

We’re already manoeuvring satellites, shuttles and space stations out of harms way, and occasionally satellites do collide. Unfortunately, I think space junk will be an additional man made hazard for space travel; we’ll just have to deal with it.

But for now, be sure to pack your double-glazed Whipple Shield if you intend to take a trip into low-Earth orbit

Source: Space.com

BOOM!! BOOM!! Beep Beep Beep Woof Woof Woof

Identified Flying Object: Anthony Cook caught a gipse of the shuttle over Griffin Observatory, LA (©Anthony Cook)
Identified Flying Object: Anthony Cook caught a gipse of the shuttle over Griffin Observatory, LA (©Anthony Cook)

Yesterday, at 5.48pm PDT, I witnessed a shuttle event for the first time. Following the 13-day long STS-128 mission to the International Space Station, shuttle Discovery had to be redirected to land at Edwards Air Force Base, about an hour north of Los Angeles.

Excited, I kept track of the shuttle’s progress as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and made a fast decent toward the Californian coastline. I quickly realized that the shuttle’s flightpath would not only take it over LA, it would be flying straight over my house! (Give or take a few pixels on my laptop screen, that would probably translate to several miles, but hell, it was close enough.)

I knew there might be a good chance that I’d hear the shuttle’s sonic boom as it passed over LA County, but I wanted to see the approaching shuttle too.

Unfortunately, it was one of the few days that there was low cloud patching the sky, so the chances were slim. Either way, I had a good chance of hearing the sonic boom if I got outside and listened very hard. I was told on good authority (by ace Discovery Space correspondent Irene Klotz) I should be able to hear the shock wave about 4 minutes before touchdown.

There was 6 minutes to go, so I ran outside to listen out for the distant thud of Discovery slamming though the atmosphere 14× the speed of sound.

Distant thud? Are you sure about that, Ian?

Although I was prepared to hear a mediocre bang, I wasn’t prepared for what really happened–

BOOM! BOOM!!!

Stupidly, I was balancing on a chair, shading my eyes in the hope of seeing a little dart-shaped shuttle through the clouds… with my laptop under my other arm so I could hear the NASA TV commentary a bit better. Not smart. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard that! I’m amazed I didn’t drop the laptop and fall off the chair, it really was that loud. Almost like a bomb going off.

Once I put the computer down on a more suitable surface, I shouted “Holy crap!” (on Twitter too). I was shaking a little. I heard the neighbours chatting about the noise; a car alarm was sounding and dogs were barking (hence the reference to the funny title, as said by @08HD_DynaSGC). I’d just heard the space shuttle, pass overhead, after spending 13 days orbiting the Earth, docked with the space station.

The enormity of the Shuttle Program struck me really hard, and I felt a little emotional. I hadn’t even seen a shuttle with my own eyes, all I’d heard was its sonic boom. I can only imagine how I’d react if I actually saw a shuttle launch, or a landing. I hope I do, soon, before the remaining six shuttle missions are out…

Image source: Spaceweather.com

Chandrayaan-1 Didn’t Fail. It Fried

chandrayaan

As we all know by now, India’s first mission to the Moon (Chandrayaan-1) lost contact with mission control over a week ago. Very quickly, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) declared that the mission was unrecoverable, and after a 10-month stint, it was curtains for India’s début lunar jaunt.

Oh well, these things happen in space.

But not everyone sees it that way. Almost immediately, the media started calling Chandrayaan-1 a “failure.” The ISRO issued press releases saying that 95% of the mission objectives had been completed, so it couldn’t be considered a “failure.”

During the Al Jazeera Inside Story show I was invited to appear on shortly after contact was lost with the satellite, I mentioned that it isn’t easy to put stuff into space. Although the ISRO has been operational for the best part of 40 years, getting a probe to the moon, dropping an impactor onto the surface and surviving for 10 months wasn’t an easy thing to do by any means. How could the mission possibly be a failure? More of a partial success.

Some questions will obviously hover over the reasons for the mishap, but it doesn’t seem to be holding India back as they prepare Chandrayaan-2.

So what did happen? It would appear that some more details are surfacing about the satellite’s demise. The Indian press are pointing to a decision by the ISRO to increase the orbit of Chandrayaan-1 from 100km to 200km in May this year for scientific reasons. In actuality, the radiation shielding installed on the craft was insufficient, forcing mission control to increase the orbit away from the Moon.

And now it looks like the same problem — lack of decent radiation shielding — fried the communication computers on board the satellite, probably the root cause of the blackout. In any case, international specialists will meet in Bangalore today to shed some light on why Chandrayaan-1 disappeared and to evaluate its performance.

Chandrayaan-1 is Lost, Astroengine Appears on Al Jazeera

As far as blogging about space news goes, this is most definitely the pinnacle of my writing career. After hearing the frustrating news that the Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO) had lost touch with their Chandrayaan-1 lunar mission, I, of course, felt compelled to blog about it.

Not 24 hours later, I receive an email from the producer of an Al Jazeera news show called Inside Story asking me if I’d be interested in sharing my views about Chandrayaan-1 on the show early Monday morning. Hell yes!

So I spent the rest of Sunday cramming the (very interesting) history of the Indian space program, along with some of the specifics of Chandrayaan-1. By Monday, I was ready to go.

The filming for the show started at 7:05am in a studio in Culver City and lasted about 25 minutes. And it was a lot of fun! Check out the video above, I think the Inside Story production is highly professional, with a very BBC feel to it. I’m very happy to have been asked for my opinion live on air, on the international stage.

Although my brain wasn’t functioning particularly fast at such an early hour, I think it went well, and I eventually got my points across…

Lost In Space: India’s Chandrayaan-1 Moon Mission Goes Silent

A miniature replica of the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft (V. Ganesan/The Hindu)

Just as one mission begins (Discovery’s STS-128), another ends. Unfortunately, only 10 months after launch, the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) lunar satellite Chandrayaan-1 has mysteriously ceased communication with mission control. ISRO officials have declared that the mission has ended, 14 months earlier than planned.

On Saturday, at 1:30am local time, the ISRO lost communications, and according to a spokesman, the agency is no longer in control of the spacecraft. Chandrayaan-1 data was being received by a monitoring unit in the southern city of Bangalore. There is currently no explanation for the failure.

The mission had completed 3,400 orbits of the Moon and everything seemed to be operational for the next few thousand orbits. The ambitious mission was launched by the fledgling space agency to allow India to stake a claim over lunar exploration with the future hope of exploiting the Moon’s natural resources (such as the abundance of uranium). This mission put India into a very exclusive club of only five international space agencies that had sent missions to the Moon before (NASA, JAXA, ESA, ROSCOSMOS and the CNSA).

This isn’t the first problem the satellite had suffered, however. In May, the probe lost a critical instrument called a star sensor, and then in July, the craft overheated. Fortunately, further damage to the rest of the satellite was averted by ground controllers.

Despite the obviously upsetting news about the loss of the $80 million piece of ISRO hardware, officials are surprisingly upbeat about the whole thing.

The mission is definitely over. We have lost contact with the spacecraft,” Project Director M. Annadurai said. “It [Chandrayaan-1] has done its job technically… 100 per cent. Scientifically also, it has done almost 90-95 percent of its job.”

Personally, I think the ISRO did a superb job at developing Chandrayaan-1 mission, and simply getting the thing into lunar orbit is an incredible feat. Another aspect I was impressed with was the ground controllers’ ability to deal with problems in-flight and fix them accordingly. This can only help to strengthen India’s ability when launching future missions to the Moon.

Sources: The Hindu, New York Times

Discovery is Still on the Launch Pad

Discovery on Launch Pad 39A... Friday launch? (NASA)
Discovery on Launch Pad 39A... Friday launch? (NASA)

To be honest, I wasn’t going to post an update on the progress of Discovery’s continuing delay, but when I saw this photo I couldn’t resist. In the shot, you can see the pad floodlights and a flash of lightning. Outstanding.

So, the next launch window is looking like it’s going to be at 11:59pm (EDT) Friday night. This will give launch crews some time to analyse results from tests they are carrying out on the potentially faulty valve that caused the previous launch scrub. However, NASA is hopeful the fault is with the sensors giving false readings rather than an engineering fault with the valve itself.

For more shuttle launch updates, keep an eye on Irene Klotz’s Free Space blog