Miles O'Brien

Reporting on space, science, aviation & tech.

Archive: Mar 2010

  1. This Week In Space – March 26, 2010

    1 Comment

    The latest edition of “This Week In Space” is available now – check us out!

    [youtubevid id=”gDG49crx24s”]

    Source: Virgin Galactic

    Space for the rest of us is got just a little closer this past week. Over the high desert of California – in the rarefied air where the X-1, X-15 and the space shuttle first tested their wings – a new spaceship took flight for the first time. I am talking about the Virgin VSS Enterprise – bolted beneath its carrying aircraft – the VMS Eve – formerly known as White Knight 2. The test flight lasted just less than 3 hours – they reached 45 thousand feet – and we are told it went well. Eve/Enterprise designer Burt Rutan called it “a momentous day for the Scaled and Virgin Teams.” Ahead – independent glide tests and then powered flight this year and next. Once the team is happy – revenue service to space will begin… Eve will take Enterprise to 50 thousand feet – where they will part company – the rocket motor will fire –  Enterprise will make a beeline for the dark sky – carrying a half dozen paying passengers into a new era.

    Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of ArizonaIt is springtime in the northern hemisphere of Mars – and while NASA’s lander called Phoenix has not survived the long dry ice encrusted winter – there are signs of – activity, though not life – elsewhere on the Red Planet.  Check out this image captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The dark spots are patches of basaltic sand that is carried to the surface as the temperature warms and the dry ice sublimates – meaning goes straight from a solid to a gas – skipping the liquid stage (it’s just a phase). Notice how they all fan out in the same direction – proof they formed at the same time – when the wind speed and direction were identical. Basalt fans – a sublime sign of warmer days ahead on Mars – sorta like our Washington cherry blossoms here in the U.S.

    It will be the fall of 2011 before the Mars Science Laboratory makes its way to the Red Planet. The ambitious rover mission was supposed to be there by now, but the launch was delayed after a host of technical and money woes (the two tend to go hand in hand – see: Constellation). In any case, the folks at The Jet Propulsion Lab in California – are glad they got an extra 26 months – because this mission is the most complex ever.

    Source:  Hubble Space TelescopeAnd while it may be a long time before humans ever get to Mars – you can simulate the long journey now – if you are so inclined.  The Russian and European space programs have teamed up for an endurance experiment that seems like the premise for a bad reality TV show – survivor meets big brother I suppose…these are some of the applicants for Mars 500 – a 520 day trip to nowhere that will try to create the rigors and challenges of a piloted mission to the Red Planet. The ersatz spacecraft sits at the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems. Three Russians, two Europeans and One Chinese will be hermetically sealed inside the steel container in May. They will live in 550 cubic meters – will only eat from food stored inside – and will communicate with the outside world either by deliberately ratty internet – or with a 20 minute one way delay once they reach simulated Mars. The goal: to better understand the psychological and physiological rigors of such a, long, isolated mission.   The big question: whether to select a rainbow coalition Star Trek like crew – or a bunch of GI-Joe’s – who think act and look alike. So should we take a pool to on whether they will make it the full 520 days? I sure hope there is a webcam…appointment TV for space cadets for sure.  Though the team final team has not been selected yet, candidate Arch’hanmael Galliard, of France, is feeling strong about his chances.

    “I think that I will be accustomed rapidly to this environment.  I thought at the beginning this environment could be smaller.   No, I think everything could be done here  – experiments, living, doing sports,  there is many things that we can do, I think, during this period, we will see with time, if it is really possible or not, but I think that we can do it.”

    The Mars 500 crew will sure have plenty of time to refine their video game playing prowess. And a now ESA is out with a new study that suggests gaming can enhance collaboration among scientists and engineers – and can be a good education and public outreach tool. The study suggests ESA strike deals with some game developers to create titles that teach – how about Grand Theft Spacecraft? I suppose not…

    (more…)

  2. This Week in Space – March 19, 2010

    Leave a Comment

    The latest edition of “This Week in Space” is now available!  Check us out!!  And many thanks to our sponsors, Binary Space and Space Careers!

    [youtubevid id=”yR7Gcio4r3g”]

    Discovery at launchpad 39A. Source: NASA

    Two million parts – all of them form the low bidder – as Wally Schirra  once famously quipped – if you put those parts together just right – you’ve got yourself a space shuttle – the problem is – just about every single one of them has to be working perfectly before a shuttle ever clears the tower.  But exceptions can be made….and that is what the shuttle launch team is doing for this next launch. With Discovery sitting on the launch pad for its penultimate flight – a helium valve  failed. The helium is used to make sure there is pressure in the fuel lines that feed the Orbital Maneuvering System engines – which handle the big course changes in orbit. Fixing the valve means a roll back to the the hangar – and a big delay. So the shuttle team will try to verify that some regulators downstream of the valve are working just fine. If so, it means they will have confidence they have only lost one layer of redundancy – and thus give Discovery its launching papers.

    Source:  WISENASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer – or WISE has captured an image – Charles Foster Kane would have liked to see – rosebud….
    this one is no sled though – it is a cosmic blossom in a cluster of stars in the Berkeley 59 – which sounds a little like a group of sixties anti war radicals…anyway…the blue dots are the stars…and they are formed by the orange dust cloud in the middle – and the green – those are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – of course…you can find those on earth in barbecue pits…for some reason I am hungry…WISE is also hunting for asteroids – and it has found more than a dozen that are near to earth – and we didn’t even know we were there. You’d be WISE to listen to this story – Chicken Littles.

    (more…)

  3. New 'This Week in Space' – March 12, 2010

    2 Comments

    The latest edition of “This Week in Space” is now available.  Check us out!

    [youtubevid id=”hqycNoARYv4″]

    Hubble2Hello and welcome – President Obama will finally say something about his plan for NASA – but there are still mixed messages coming out of the space agency – as the space shuttle program winds down – and new commercial players try to spin up. And while SpaceX tried to figure out why a launch pad test ended before it really got started – We are told by the man in charge of the shuttle program that the fleet doesn’t have to stop flying after 4 more flights – it is just a matter of money…more on all of this in a bit – but first I have to tell you about tje Warner Brothers “IMAX: Hubble 3D” movie that captures some of the space shuttle’s greatest moments – and gives those of us who have never been to space – an idea of what it is really like to be there. I am talking about the IMAX Hubble 3-D movie – which premiered this week at the Air and Space Museum in Washington…The movie focuses on the last Hubble repair mission in May. NASA  bolted a 3-D IMAX camera into the payload bay of Atlantis – it captured the astronauts at work in a vivid big screen – in your face – kinda way.

    Hubble1Leonardo DiCaprio narrates the film. Hubble 3D also includes scenes from the first Hubble repair mission – and the deployment of the telescope as well. But this time there is something different – IMAX took some of the most iconic images captured by Hubble – to the National Center for Super Computing Applications at the University of Illinois Ubrana-Champaign – there the filmmakers and the computer whizzes made those images 3-D – so in this movie not only do you feel as if you are flying on board the shuttle – you also are treated to an amazing 3-D odyssey through distant galaxies and nebulas. It’s an amazing ride…

    Hubble3They rolled out the red carpet at the Air and Space museum for the premiere – the space glitterati – such as it is – was there in large numbers – to see the Hubble 3-D. Now Leonardo sent his regrets from a movie set in Japan – and the real star of the show – Hubble was unable to be there was well – so that meant the big stars of the evening were the crew members of STS-125 – decked out in their blue flight suits – ready for their closeups. The crew of course felt a ton of pressure to fix and improve Hubble for the last time – so you would think shooting the movie would be no problem at all. But get this – they only had 8 minutes worth of film in that 3-D camera in the payload bay. And the camera only shoots 30 seconds at a time. So they had to be extremely careful about when to say “action” – but they had trained for it long and hard – and it all paid off. I spoke to these John Glenn Steven Spielberg hybrids as they walked down the carpet.

    (more…)

  4. New 'This Week In Space' – March 6, 2010

    Leave a Comment

    The latest edition of “This Week In Space” – hosted by Yours Truly, is out!  Watch here!

    [youtubevid id=”S5icnMDAGsI”]

    Map of the North Pole of the Moon.  Source:  NASA

    Map of the North Pole of the Moon. Source: NASA

    I gotta admit,  I am getting a little tired of launching the program with the latest skirmish in the war over the Obama NASA space budget – it’s not that I don’t care – but frankly I am more interested in learning something new about the Cosmos – not Congress. How about you? So this week, I am starting in the orbit of the moon – where a high tech divining rod built by the U.S. – hitching a ride on an Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan-1 – has found there is a whole lot of water ice down there. And here is the proof…NASA’s Mini-SAR radar is the instrument – and it found the ice in more than 40 small craters where the sun don’t shine. So how much ice is there? 1.3 trillion pounds (600 million metric tons).  Another reason to visit the moon – it will be easy to keep the beer cold.

    Buzz Aldrin

    Buzz Aldrin

    Tempting as a toga party in 1/6th gravity might be – we are not heading back to the moon anytime soon – and the second man to leave footprints up there is just fine with that. Buzz Aldrin is pushing a plan called the Unified Space Vision – which earmarks money to build a heavy lift booster – and a craft that would only operate in space called the Exploration Module – or XM (he’s Sirius about XM).  The XM’s would be built from parts left over from space station construction – carried to orbit by shuttles – oh yeah – he wants to fly several more shuttle missions. I Skyped Buzz to hear more.   A lot of others are looking to get more funding for NASA – Kay Bailey Hutchison – the Senator from Shuttleland has ginned up a bill that would add 1.3 billion dollars more to the Obama NASA budget.  The money would be used to fly the shuttle fleet indefinitely.  All of this is grist for the so called “Plan B” team that is working on a compromise plan inside NASA that might bridge the gap between the White House and the Hill. Enough said – stay tuned.

    Discovery at launchpad 39A.  Source:  NASA

    Discovery at pad 39A. Source: NASA

    Meanwhile the serious business of launching a shuttle safely moves on in earnest – and in slow motion at the Cape.  TWIS Correspondent David Waters was there the other day as Discovery and her entourage – made her way to the pad – like a herd of turtles.

    Liftoff is currently targeted for April 5.  Please join David, me, and astronaut Leroy Chiao at Spaceflight Now for comprehensive coverage of the launch.

    International Space Station.  Source:  NASA

    International Space Station. Source: NASA

    (more…)