Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Air Force X37B space plane begins fourth mission

An unmanned U.S. Air Force space plane lifted off from America's Space Coast on Wednesday a top a United Launch Alliance Atlas rocket beginning the programs fourth experimental flight.

This new mission is the second flight of the second autonomous Boeing-built X-37B spacecraft which will spend at least a year soaring around the planet approximately 400 miles above. Today's launch also marks the fourth X-37B mission to test new technologies and spacecraft systems in orbit.

Under an blue skies , the Atlas 5 rocket's core engine ignited as the countdown clock reached zero, lifting off on time at 11:05 a.m. EDT. A second later, nearly 870,000 pounds of thrust pushed the rocket and it's historic military payload off it's seaside launch pad and out over the Atlantic waters.

The delta winged spacecraft later separated from the Atlas' Centaur upper stage nearly twenty minutes into the flight. As the X-37B navigated away  the upper stage, The belly of the vehicle is protected with a black thermal protection system designed by NASA. Aligned with protective black and white thermal tiles, the mini space shuttle has a wing span of 14 feet, 11 inches from tip to tip.

“ULA is honored to launch this unique spacecraft for the U.S Air Force,"said ULA Vice President for Atlas Jim Sponnick on Wednesday. "Congratulations to the Air Force and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch! The seamless integration between the Air Force, Boeing, and the entire mission team culminated in today’s successful launch of the AFSPC-5 mission."
Riding into Earth orbit with the X-37B was a payload consisting of ten science investigative CubeSats designed by both NASA, U.S. Naval Academy and the California Polytechnic State University. The mini satellite payloads were stored in chambers and attached to the lower section of the Centuar stage near its engine nozzle.

The payloads will look into many fields including the first satellite designed as a UNIX Web server in space using "common TCP/IP Internet protocol accessible to any Internet user," according to the National Reconnaissance Office  "The U.S. Naval Academy will also be comparing the Internet speed of the space-based network versus terrestrial networks."

Following an undisclosed flight time, the space plane is expected to touchdown in late-2016 at its prime landing site in California. Once the Air Force brings the reusable space plane home, it will reenter just like the space shuttle and aim for a touchdown on runway 12 at Vandenberg, AFB, located northeast of Los Angeles.

Lt. Col. Troy Giese, the OTV systems program director said, "Upon being given the command to return to Earth, the X-37B will automatically descend through the atmosphere and land on the designated runway. There is no one on the ground with a joystick flying it." If weather or technical issues arise on landing day, then Edwards, AFB will be called up with it's longer runway.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

American-Russian crew to begin historic year in space Friday

Scott Kelly, Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko pause a week before launch. (NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- American astronaut Scott J. Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are poised to lift-off from western Kazakhstan on Friday en route to begin a historic flight aboard the International Space Station as they spend one full year in space.

No American has spent greater than seven months in space on a single flight. NASA and the Russian Space Agency hope to determine how the human body can fight the environment of space and the lack of gravity to avoid decreased strength in both muscles and bone density, and levels of radiation exposure caused by solar flares.

"Some day we're gonna go to Mars, and we have the facilities on board the space station to really study the effects of space on longer duration space flights," Kelly said from the Kazakhstan launch site. "Having the capability that the International Space Station provides to study the human element of this is going to be significantly better than before."

Russian Valeri Polyakov endured a record 438 days in space on a single mission beginning in 1994. He and three fellow cosmonauts are the only humans who have spent a full year or more in space during a space mission.

"Kelly and Kornienko will spend a year on the space station to better understand how the human body reacts and adapts to the harsh environment of space," NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz said. "Data from the expedition will be used to determine whether there are ways to further reduce the risks on future long-duration missions to an asteroid and eventually Mars."

As Navy Capt. Kelly spends one year in earth orbit, he and his identical twin brother Mark Kelly on Earth will take routine biomedical samples at about the same time. NASA scientists will use their fluid and cell samples to compare and contrast the human body's reactions to life in microgravity and the harmful radiation which surrounds the orbiting laboratory.

"Data and samples will be collected throughout the year from a series of studies involving Scott and his twin brother, Mark," Schierholz added. "The studies will compare data from the genetically-identical Kelly brothers to identify any subtle changes caused by spaceflight."

Kelly and Kornienko and cosmonaut Gennady Padalka are due to launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome at 3:42 p.m. EDT (1:42 a.m. on Saturday local time) riding a top a Soyuz FG rocket. Nine minutes later, the trio will arrive in Earth orbit and begin steering their Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft on an expedited trip to dock with the space station nearly six hours later.

Soyuz commander Padalka will guide their craft as they rendezvous and dock to the station's Poisk docking port four orbits following launch at 9:36 p.m. The hatches between the two spacecraft is expected to open about 90 minutes later allowing the new space trio to float into their new home greeted by current space station commander and NASA astronaut Terry Virts, Russian Anton Shkaplerov and Italy's Samantha Cristoforetti.

"We have certain phenomena that result from long duration space flight, and currently this new risk we have is the effect on our vision," Astronaut Kelly explained recently at the Johnson Space Center. "A lot of the science that is devoted to Mikhail and I as crew members are along those kind of lines -- your physical performance, your ability to function once you get back on Earth after such a long duration in space."

Kelly, who was in attendance and recognized by President Obama during the State of the Union address in January, will begin his expedition as a flight engineer for the first two-thirds of his flight. Kelly will then become commander in September, his second tour as the space station commander, a title he will hold until his departure.

During Kelly and Kornienko's year in space, they will participate in the relocation of two docking ports and the installation of two new International Docking Ports. Kelly will participate in a series of spacewalks to install the first new docking adapter this summer.

"The challenge for these guys is they're basically living in their office for an entire year," Emily Nelson, NASA Lead Flight Director for Kelly's final four months in space, said. "They're consummate professionals, they're going to do their job well from beginning to end... Those last four months, that's going to be one of our challenges is making sure we keep it upbeat and fun."

Following 51 weeks in space, Kelly and Kornienko will board the newer Soyuz TMA-18M craft with cosmonaut Sergey Volkov for their return trip to Earth, landing three hours later in central Kazakhstan.

Kelly's 180 days in space during three previous space flights added to next March's newly completed 342 days will give the astronaut the new American record of most time in space at 522 days. A record which may be short lived as NASA's Peggy Whitson will add nearly six months to her already cumulative duration of 377 days in space when she returns from her  stay aboard the space station in May 2017.

You can follow Kelly's long duration mission as he shares tweets each day from space via @StationCDRKelly. "I felt like it would be interesting to do that in space," Kelly said. "One 140-character message a day, 'hey this is what I'm doing, this is how I'm feeling'. I'm not sure if I'm gonna be successful doing it everyday

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Space station crew touchdown safely in foggy Kazakhstan

Russian Soyuz craft descends to a March 12 landing with a crew of three. (NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An American and two Russians touched down with a thud upon the snow-covered desert of central Kazakhstan on Thursday after spending 167 days living and working aboard the International Space Station.

Dense fog over the landing site delayed official confirmation of the spacecraft's landing for six minutes. Meanwhile, recovery crews were racing to locate the craft and relay word back to mission control in Moscow.

Outgoing space station commander and NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore, and cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova returned to Earth aboard the same the Soyuz spacecraft in which they launched aboard last September 26.The space trio completed over 2,600 orbits of their home planet having traveled 70.7 million miles.

Wilmore departed the station just a week following the completion of three spacewalks with fellow astronaut Terry W. Virts. Virts assumed command of the space station from Wilmore during a traditional ceremony on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Serova became the first Russian woman to board the orbital complex during her flight -- only the fourth Russian female to ever fly in space.

The crew's arrival home began three hours earlier with a flawless undocking from the outpost's Poisk module at 6:44 p.m., as the two spacecraft soared 257 miles above northern Mongolia. The international trio left behind the station's new Expedition 43 crew members of Virts, Italian Samantha Cristoforetti and Russian Anton Shkaplerov.

Minutes following the departure, Virts rang the station's naval bell and radioed, "Soyuz TMA-14M departing". The new station commander then radioed the free-flying Soyuz, "To the crew of Soyuz TMA-14M, soft landing guys, and we will see you on Earth in a few months."

As the Soyuz sailed for one final Earth orbit on the ocean of space, Samokutyaev aligned the craft for it's nearly five minute burn at 9:16 p.m. to drop them out of orbit. Twenty minutes after the burn, pyrotechnical explosives separated the three section Soyuz allowing the crew section to move away in time for the 2,500-degree Fahrenheit fiery re-entry three minutes later.

Samokutyaev guided the Russian launched Soyuz spacecraft down to a pinpoint landing at 10:07 p.m. EDT on Wednesday (8:07 a.m. local time, Thursday), about 65 miles southeast of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan. As the Soyuz came to a stop on the snow laden region 26 minutes after sunrise, Russian MI-8 military helicopters and vehicles began racing toward the tired space crew.
Up next is the March 27 Soyuz TMA-15M launch with American Scott Kelly and Russian's Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka. Both Kelly and Kornienko will spend a full year aboard the space station gathering bio-medical information on themselves to test the effects of space and microgravity on the human body.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

NASA readies station for commercial dockings as Russia plans departure

Two spacewalking astronauts continued with jobs outside the International Space Station on Wednesday to prepare the orbiting outpost for a pair of new docking adapters arriving this summer.

Space station commander Butch Wilmore and Terry Virts switched their spacesuits to internal power at 6:51 a.m. EST, ahead of leaving the station's Quest airlock, beginning the second of three planned spacewalks during an eight day stretch. The duo quickly went to work beginning the nearly seven hour spacewalk by moving over to their work site -- a former space shuttle docking port.

Wilmore and Virts first removed a thermal cover from the former shuttle docking module in preparation for the June arrival of the first of two new International Docking Adapters (IDA). IDA-1 will be attached to the older docking module also known as Pressurized Mating Adapter 2 during a spacewalk in July. Both IDA's are due to launch from Cape Canaveral a top separate SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets tucked inside the Dragon 7 supply craft.

"Boeing built the two new docking adapters... Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation-100 and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will use the adapters to deliver astronauts to the space station later this decade," NASA spokesperson Mark Garcia stated during today's spacewalk.

IDA-2 will launch two months later and then installed to PMA-3. The PMA-3 will first be moved from its current location and over to the space-facing side of the American Harmony module this summer. NASA has confirmed, "SpaceX is targeting its new Crew Dragon spacecraft to make an uncrewed flight test in late 2016 and a crewed flight test in early 2017."

The six hour spacewalk also featured several housekeeping chores by the spacewalking duo including lubricating the 57-foot robotic arm's latching end-effector, and rigging two final power and data cables over to PMA-2.

Virts stood on a special platform on the station's truss as he placed a special lubricate on the ball screws and bearings near the snares on the hand section of the Canadian-built arm. As Virts worked outside, station crew mate and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti worked from inside the Cupola module slowly moving the robotic arm and its wrist joint into position for Virts.

"We were the cable guys, and now we're the Grease Monkeys," Wilmore commented as the spacewalk wrapped up.

The same two astronauts will step outside for a third time on Sunday to complete several more tasks in anticipation of the new docking adapters. NASA TV will provide live coverage of the orbital walk beginning at 6:00 a.m.

As Wednesday's American spacewalk began, the Russian Space Agency announced new plans to conclude their presence at the space station in 2024. ROSCOSMOS chairman of manned space flight Yuri Koptev announced early Wednesday plans to separate several of their science and docking modules in nine years to form a new Russian-based space station.

"The concept involves the use of the ISS until 2024, and then plan to create a Russian space base on the basis separated from the ISS modules," the Russian Space Agency said in a new press release. "Configuration of multipurpose laboratory module, nodal module and scientific power module to create a promising Russian space station to meet the challenges of providing secure access to the Russian space."

ROSCOSMOS added their interest in landing a Russian on the Moon beginning in 2030, "Russia will target study of the moon using unmanned spacecraft to lunar orbit and the surface of Earth's natural satellite. At the turn of 2030 and will be out for manned missions to the moon." The release also mentioned plans to "implement programs of deep space exploration".

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Cable Guys" prepare space station for new docking ports

Astronauts spacewalk to prepare the space station for docking ports. (NASA)
The first of three spacewalks to prepare the International Space Station for the arrival of future commercial spacecraft wrapped up on Saturday after astronauts strung new cables in preparation for two new docking ports launching this year.

NASA astronauts Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Terry Virts completed a six hour, 41 minute assembly spacewalk at 2:26 p.m. EST, having laid out eight of the 10 electrical and communication cables in preparation for the arrival of the ports.

Nicknamed the "Cable Guys" by NASA controllers, Wilmore and Virts "rigged a series of power and data cables at the forward end of the Harmony module and Pressurized Mating Adapter-2, and routed 340 of 360 feet of cable," NASA spokesperson Mark Garcia stated at the conclusion of the spacewalk.

The astronauts will pick back up in a few days, and plan to finish the necessary tasks with a third orbital stroll next Sunday, March 1. "The duo will venture outside the space station again on Wednesday to deploy two more cables and lubricate the end of the space station’s robotic arm," Garcia added.

Two Boeing-built International Docking Adapters (IDA) are due to arrive to the orbital outpost this summer and fall. The first IDA is at the Kennedy Space Center with the second adapter wrapping up construction near Houston. Each adapter will allow a visiting crewed commercial spacecraft to perform a soft-dock arrival to space station.

Each 1,150-pound adapter will be tucked inside a Dragon cargo craft's trunk launched a top two SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. The adapters will require several spacewalks to mate each to the station, and then connect the power and communication cables which are being laid out during these three spacewalks.

Wilmore is the current space station commander, and performed one previous spacewalk last October. Saturday's walk in space marked Virts first time outside a spacecraft. Astronauts and cosmonauts have spent a combined 1,159 hours during 185 spacewalks conducting space station assembly and maintenance jobs.

The spacewalk was delayed by one day to give both flight controllers and the astronauts a break following an exhaustive week in troubleshooting the two spacesuits for contamination of its cooling system. Issues with previous spacesuits forced NASA to return them to Earth aboard a Dragon supply craft for analysis and checkout.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

SpaceX rocket launches DSCOVR solar observatory

SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts-off on February 11 from Cape Canaveral. (SpaceX)

A U.S. government spacecraft designed to study the solar wind and warn of harmful solar flares heading towards Earth launched into the sunset sky on Wednesday aboard a commercial rocket from America's Space Coast.

The $340 million Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, is the first deep space weather mission operated by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and is in partnership with NASA and the Air Force. The 1,250-pound satellite carries five science instruments designed to record the output of solar radiation from the Sun and its effect on Earth.

"DSCOVR will serve as our tsunami buoy in space giving forecasters up to an hour warning on the arrival of the huge magnetic eruptions from the Sun that occasionally occur called coronal mass ejections," said Dr. Tom Berger, NOAA space weather prediction center director said on Saturday. "CME's are the cause of the largest geomagnetic storms on Earth some of which can severely disrupt our technological society causing loss of communications with aircraft, damage to satellites on orbit and power grid equipment on the ground.

DSCOVR was grounded during two previous launch attempts on February 8 and 10 by a faulty tracking radar and then upper level winds. As the countdown neared zero, controllers were green with no weather or ground issues in the way.

The Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) Falcon's nine rocket engines ignited on time at 6:03:32 p.m. EST, and lifted off into a twilight sky over Cape Canaveral. A 300-foot golden flame pushed the white rocket higher and faster as Falcon soared out over the Atlantic waters beginning SpaceX first deep space launch. Wednesday's launch also marked the tenth flight of a Falcon.

“It was inspiring to witness the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory," former Vice President Albert Gore said from near the launch site. "DSCOVR has embarked on its mission to further our understanding of Earth and enable citizens and scientists alike to better understand the reality of the climate crisis and envision its solutions. DSCOVR will also give us a wonderful opportunity to see the beauty and fragility of our planet and, in doing so, remind us of the duty to protect our only home.”

As the Falcon 9 first stage gulped it's fuel, engineers at SpaceX prepared for the flight's first stage separation. Controllers were originally scheduled to safely land the spent stage for reuse on a future flight as the booster was flipped around 180-degrees and later guided down by two burns towards a safe landing a top a free floating barge located about 370 miles down range from Cape Canaveral.

However, nearly thirty-foot waves at the swaying barge forced SpaceX to abandon plans and instead force it into a devastating water impact away from the platform. "Rocket soft landed in the ocean within 10 meters of target and nicely vertical," SpaceX founder Elon Musk wrote on Twitter 40 minutes following splashdown. "High probability of good droneship landing in non-stormy weather."

SpaceX officials point to this type of recovery and reuse of its rockets as a step toward reducing future launch costs. The company now charges $61.2 million for a 2016 payload to be launched a top its standard Falcon 9. The massive Falcon 9 Heavy fetches $85 million per launch.

On board camera views mounted on the rocket captured unique views of the flight including engine cut-off and stage separation. Thirty-six minutes into the flight, DSCOVR separated from the Falcon's upper stage and immediately deployed its twin solar arrays. NOAA expects the spacecraft will operate for up to five years, and could continue for a decade or more based on its thruster fuel consumption.

DSCOVR will operate from a position known as the Lagrange 1 orbit -- a position located 930,000 miles from Earth in an orbit around the Sun. NOAA expects it will take 110 days for DSCOVR to reach its L1 orbit for operations.

"From (this) position it's staring at the Sun and taking data measurements of the solar wind coming from the Sun in real time and transmitting that data directly to the Earth," Dr. Stephen Voltz, a NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services, explained on Saturday. "Looking backwards, it's also observing the Earth with a secondary payload."

The observatory will also photograph the brightly light disk of our planet a few times each day. The photographs will be published on the following day.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

SpaceX Dragon splashes down with space station equipment for NASA

A commercial resupply spacecraft loaded with science experiments and cargo undocked from the International Space Station on Tuesday and performed a pinpoint splashdown hours later in the Pacific Ocean.

Dragon's return capped a 31-day space voyage of which 29 days were spent docked to the Earth-facing side of the space station's Harmony module. The supply ship delivered nearly 5,100 pounds of fresh oxygen, food, equipment and water to the four man, two woman international crew on Jan. 12.

Grappled by the station's Canadian-built robotic arm, the Space Exploration Corp. Dragon was released into space at 2:10 p.m. EST, as the two spaceships soared 260 miles high over southern Australia. Filled with 3,700 pounds of numerous biological and physical samples, equipment and trash, Dragon then performed a series of burns to place it on course for a deorbit burn.

Once Dragon reached a precise point over Earth, it fired its thrusters to slow down the craft's speed by two hundred miles per hour and drop out of orbit. Forty minutes later, two massive parachutes slowed the charred spacecraft down allowing for a safe water landing at 7:44 p.m. EST, 259 miles southwest of Long Beach, California.

Dragon remains the only American spacecraft which can return science cargo safely to Earth so that scientists and engineers on the ground can analysis the data. This concluded flight was SpaceX fifth supply craft to deliver cargo and supplies to the space station and return successfully to earth.

"The ability to resupply and return this critical research continues to be an invaluable asset for the researchers here on Earth using the International Space Station as their laboratory in orbit," Kirt Costello, NASA deputy chief scientist for the International Space Station Program, said on Tuesday.

A European unmanned cargo craft is also due to depart the space station this week. The Automated Transfer Vehicle 5 will leave the orbital outpost on Saturday morning en route to a fiery re-entry and burn up over the Pacific waters.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

NASA SMAP lifts off to study Earth's soil moisture

A ULA Delta II lifts off with SMAP predawn on January 31. photo: ULA
 CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A NASA spacecraft designed to study and map the moisture locked within the Earth's soil over the next three years lifted off in the predawn hour on Saturday from the California coastline.

The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite will begin a mission to create global maps of the water embedded in the top two inches of the soil regions across the globe. As SMAP moves around Earth in a polar orbit, it will study only the moisture and not regions covered in ice, and become a new source to locate new drought regions.

Soaring 426 miles above Earth in a near polar orbit, SMAP will sweep its rotating golden radar antenna across a 620-mile wide region. The new data will assist farmers and scientists in climate and weather forecasts and track water movement across the globe.

The United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket launched at 6:22 a.m. PST (9:22 a.m. EST), on Jan. 31 following a two minute delay due to upper level winds, from historic Vandenberg AFB near Los Angeles. "And lift-off of the Delta 2 rocket with SMAP, making global observations of soil moisture for climate forecasting," NASA Launch Commentator George H. Diller exclaimed as flames and exhaust ignited from the rocket.

The Delta's core main engine and three rocket boosters pushed the white and blue rocket higher as it soared toward the south and out over the Pacific waters. Viewers near the launch sight trailed with their eyes the 400-foot golden flame over the black night sky.

Fifty-seven minutes after Delta II left Earth's soil, SMAP separated from the rockets upper stage and quickly began to move away. A television camera on the upper stage captured the 2,332-pound spacecraft separate 424 miles over an area northeast of Madagascar.

“I just can’t say enough about the team that we have," NASA Delta II Launch Manager Tim Dunn said following the successful lift-off. "We had zero launch vehicle problems on Delta II. We had zero spacecraft problems."

“We’re in contact with SMAP and everything looks good right now,” Dunn exclaimed after separation. “Deployment of the solar arrays is underway. We just couldn’t be happier.” Over the next few days, mission engineers and controllers will deploy SMAP radar boom and unfurl the massive circular radar dish. The release of the first SMAP soil moisture data is expected in nine months.

The Delta's third stage then maneuvered to a lower orbit forty minutes later and began to deploy four CubeSats -- satellites designed and built by universities which act like experiments to learn more about Earth and the space around us. The third stage will eventually be maneuvered so that it reenters earths atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Small moon discovered orbiting a near Earth asteroid

NASA astronomers studying a speeding asteroid which passed close to our planet on Monday learned it carries an orbiting moon of its own around the icy rock as it moves across our solar system.

In newly released radar images from the space agency, asteroid 2004 BL86 can be seen spinning while its unnamed moon moves closer frame by frame. The space duo flew past Earth on Monday morning (EST) from a distance of 745,000 miles or three times the distance from the Earth to our moon.

"(The) flyby was the closest approach the asteroid will make to Earth for at least the next two centuries," DC Agle, spokesperson at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said on Monday. "It is also the closest a known asteroid this size will come to Earth until asteroid 1999 AN10 flies past our planet in 2027."

NASA Near Earth Objects program cooperates with universities and the private sector in studying and discovering asteroids using high gain radar antennas across the globe. "Radar is a powerful technique for studying an asteroid's size, shape, rotation state, surface features and surface roughness, and for improving the calculation of asteroid orbits. Radar measurements of asteroid distances and velocities often enable computation of asteroid orbits much further into the future than if radar observations weren't available."

"In the near-Earth population, about 16 percent of asteroids that are about 655 feet or larger are a binary or even triple systems," Agle added. The 1100-foot near-Earth asteroid was discovered in January 2004 by astronomers at White Sands, N.M.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

U.S. Navy MUOS3 spacecraft successfully launches from Cape Canaveral

A massive U.S. Navy military satellite designed to improve communications and data between troops in remote regions lifted-off on Tuesday from America's Space Coast on a planned decade long mission in geostationary orbit.

The Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) spacecraft is the third in a fleet of five planned satellites designed to replace aging military communications satellites. The MUOS-3 system is expected to expand the military network by ten times the number of users than that of the existing SATCOM system, including voice, video and data.

"Five are planned, four operational and one on-orbit spare," stated Naval Commander Pete Sheehy minutes after launch. CDR Sheehy added MUOS 4 will launch this August, and the fleet of four satellites will be operational tested late this year. He likened MUOS as moving multiple cellular towers on the ground and placing them in geostationary orbit.

As the countdown entered a planned hold at 4 minutes, high upper levels winds and "command interference" with the Atlas V rocket delayed lift-off by 21 minutes. The interference left the range with the inability to send necessary destruct commands to the vehicle if an emergency occurred.

As the two issues cleared and the clock neared zero, the Atlas' RD-180 main engine ignited seconds before its five boosters.

The bronze and white Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Tuesday at 7:49 p.m. EST, with its heaviest payload to date. The Atlas V 551, powered by a core main engine and five strap on solid fuel boosters, leapt from the launch pad with 2.6 million pounds of thrust to carry its 7.4 ton payload.

As the rocket rose up and began to dart out over the Atlantic waters, night briefly turned to daylight as Atlas rode a 400-foot golden flame. Nearly two minutes later, the empty boosters were jettisoned two at a time while the lone main engine continued to burn.

Tuesday's launch occurred during President Obama's State of the Union address in which he promoted the use of military operations to stop terrorism foes in the Middle East.

MUOS 3 successfully deployed from the Centuar upper stage on time at 10:57 p.m., and into its planned orbit over an area northwest of Australia. The spacecraft will undergo several months of thruster firings to place MUOS in its proper orbit, and on orbit check outs.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Russian rocket launches European emergency respose satellite

A spacecraft designed to improve emergency response time and boost communications between Europe and Africa lifted off high atop a Russian Proton rocket on Saturday and into the predawn skies over Kazakhstan.

The ASTRA 2G spacecraft will complete a cluster of three satellites in geostationary orbit designed to assist in satellite communications and emergency response in a broad region of the earth from the United Kingdom, across Europe and over western Africa.

"The ground processing (and) lift-off have proceeded nominally," the Khrunichev Space Center announced minutes after the launch. "The orbital unit separated nominally from the (third) stage, and continued the mission in a standalone mode."

Based from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Luxembourg, the ASTRA trio of satellites will assist the e-health platform of SATMED in the rapid response time following a natural disaster. Astra will improve high speed Internet access and voice and data relay to areas without network coverage.

The emergency alert spacecraft ran to an emergency of its own en route to it's launch site half way between Moscow and Baikonur Cosmodrome. An aircraft carrying the Astra 2G from Moscow to the launch site avoided an inflight emergency on October 29. The Russian AN-124-100 plane's number four engine suffered a temperature spike which forced the flight to perform an emergency landing in Ulyanovsk, 800 miles southeast of Moscow. The flight was completed the following day.

The launcher and it's payload were rolled out to it's historic launch pad 39, Yuri Gagrin's launch complex, at Baikonur on Wednesday in preparation for flight. The 191-foot tall Proton rocket includes three main stages and a Breeze-M boost stage to complete its mission.

Frigid temperatures at the launch site dropped to near zero as the countdown reached zero. The International Launch Services Proton-M six RD276 engines ignited illuminating the black night with yellow and orange flames. The silver rocket's combined 1.55 million pounds of weight began to climb skyward at 4:37:49 p.m. EST (3:37 a.m. local time, Sunday), riding a 300-foot golden flame.

The Proton rocket soared higher and faster as the first stage rapidly drank it's fuel. Two minutes into the flight, the now empty first stage separated and the second stage's four engines immediately ignited steering the rocket on a easterly course.

The Breeze-M upper stage will perform five separate burns over eight hours to boost ASTRA into its transfer orbit. Astra is expected to separate from Breeze nine hours after lift-off (1:49 a.m.) 22,300 miles above the equator north of Madagascar beginning a 15-year lifespan.

This launch also marked the 401st mission of Russia's Proton rocket since the program began during the cold war days of the space race in July 1965.

This launch was delayed several weeks after launch pad testing discovered undisclosed issues between the satellite and it's upper stage. The rocket's manufacture Khrunichev State Research and Production returned Proton to it's assembly building "to eliminate the identified faults".

The Proton launch occurs following a string on Proton failures over the last few years, including on May 16 in which a failure of the third stage caused its lone satellite to be lost. This launch marked the seventh Proton launch of the year.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

New expedition crew arrives at space station

Two astronauts and one cosmonaut safely arrived at the International Space Station on Sunday docking just hours after leaving Earth behind to begin a half year of science investigations and maintenance.

A Russian spacecraft carrying cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, NASA's Terry W. Virts and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti docked with the orbiting lab less than six hours after their launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in western Kazakhstan.
The five hour, 47 minute flight by the Soyuz from launch to docking took the same amount of time to travel by car from Houston to New Orleans, noted NASA spokesperson Kyle Herring. It tied to the minute as the fastest flight by a manned spacecraft to the space station.

"We have contact," exclaimed Shkaplerov at 9:49 p.m. EST, as the Soyuz docking mechanics began to drive the two spacecraft together during an orbital sunset 262 miles over central eastern Pacific Ocean. The hard mate was followed by hooks and latches closing and a series of leak checks to ensure that seals between the hatches were air tight.

The hatches were officially opened at 12:00 a.m. on Monday, and the new crew floated into the massive complex greeted by station commander and NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore and Russian flight engineers Alexander Samoukutyaev and Elena Serova. Hugs and welcomes greeted the arriving crew as they exchanged words and smiles.

Hatch opening was delayed by the Soyuz crew an extra twenty minutes as they ensure the there was a good air pressure equalization. Samoukutyaev opened the station's hatch on time. His crew then waited patiently, even invoking some humor by taking a tool and acting like he was banging on the Soyuz closed hatch.

The new arriving crew were so starved that they broke into a meal during the traditional family and friends conference shown live on NASA TV. The crew noted they felt fine, but had not eaten since last night. They used the opportunity to play with their food in zero-G to the laughter of the those on the ground.

Shkaplerov, Virts and Cristoforeti will live and work in earth orbit until mid-May 2015, a time when they will board their Soyuz for the three hour return home.

International crew lifts-off on six month space voyage

An American, Russian and Italian lifted off atop a 400-foot golden flame into the night sky over Kazakhstan on Monday to begin a six month voyage of living and working aboard the International Space Station.

The new station crew will perform a series of thruster burns today in order to catch up with their port-of-call within six hours after launch during a quick rendezvous and docking flight.

Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, NASA's Terry W. Virts and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti lifted off at 3:01:14 a.m. local time (4:01 p.m. EST, Sunday) riding high atop a Soyuz FG rocket on a nearly six hour trip to catch up with and dock to the orbiting complex.

The space trio arrived at the base of their rocket as a light snow began to fall at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, two and one-half hours before launch. They climbed a small ladder turned and posed for photographers and well wishers gathered to send them off.

As the countdown reached zero, the Soyuz engines ignited at the precise moment in which the space station soared 530 miles above and east of the launch pad. As the 151-foot tall rocket leaped skyward in a massive jolt, it's crew were all smiles as they began to slice through a few cloud layers over the launch site.

Two minutes into Soyuz climb to orbit, its four boosters had expended its fuel and separated while the core main engine continued to burn. Seven minutes later, the crew had arrived in low earth orbit and began deploying the spacecraft's twin solar arrays and their KURS tracking antenna.

Minutes later, the crew set to work to prepare their space taxi for rendezvous and fly around of the station prior to docking to Russia's Rassvet module at 9:53 p.m. EST. Ninety minutes later, hatches between the two spacecraft will open allowing Shkaplerov, Virts and Cristoforetti to float into their new home 260 miles above the planet.

The new crew of three will join the space station's current crew of NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova. Wilmore currently serves as the station's commander.

Flight engineer Virts is no stranger to life aboard the space station. In 2010, the NASA astronaut served as pilot aboard space shuttle Endeavour spending ten days docked to the orbital outpost. His crew delivered two key station elements, the crew-popular Cupola and the Italian-built Tranquility module.

The Italian-born Cristoforetti is making her first trip into space. An astronaut with the European Space Agency, Cristoforetti is a captain and fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force. During a two-year academic stay in the United States in 1996, Cristoforetti attended SpaceCamp in Huntsville.

Eight hours prior to launch, Cristoforetti noted, "Just had what was probably my longest shower ever. Good Russian wisdom to leave plenty of time for it on the schedule!"

"I have prepared all my life for this space mission," Cristoforetti, Italy's first female astronaut said. "Everything I have done on this journey of life and personal growth will help me be a good crew member aboard the International Space Station."

Cristoforetti will soon serve as barista as she becomes the first astronaut to brew a fresh cup of espresso coffee in space in true Italian style. Using a small metal glove box, steamed water will allow her to mix up clear pouch of espresso as she begins a new day of science.

Cosmonaut Shkaplerov spent 165 days in space in 2012 as he lived and worked aboard the space station, including a six hour spacewalk outside the complex.

Sunday's lift-off occurred just three days following the sixteenth anniversary of the station's first component launch, Russia's Zarya core module.

On popular social media sites, this crew will be sharing their moments in space. Follow ,  and via Twitter and @Space_Station on Instgram for exclusive coverage of their flight.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Soaring on falcons wings with Air Force Thunderbirds

ATLANTA -- Climbing aboard a sleek Air Force fighter jet and launching into the deep blue sky can make one either grin or become ill -- for this aerospace journalist punching that sky in an aerobatic jet was an incredible feeling.

To soar with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds was a dream come true as I welcomed the chance to chase the sound barrier and pull nearly 8G's in a Lockheed Martin-built F-16D Fighting Falcon.

The Thunderbirds are known as America's Ambassadors in Blue and they live up to the title inspiring young men and women across the country to reach for their goals in education and technical training by serving in the Air Force. They perform to support recruitment in the Air Force; to represent the U.S. armed forces to the nations across the globe; and give American citizens a self fulfilled confidence in their military.

In his third year with the team, Thunderbird 8 is Major Michael Fisher, a native of Vancouver, Washington. He has logged 432 combat hours in the F-16 and over 2000 hours as a pilot. During the 2014 season, he serves as the Thunderbirds' air show narrator announcing the aerobatic demos as the teams soars over the crowds.

My flight day began at dawn at Dobbins Air Reserve Base located northwest of metro Atlanta. Dobbins is home to the Airmen of the 94th Air Wing division and supports military operations such as aircraft fueling and logistics. On this cool October morning, Dobbins is where my jet stood poised for flight.

The Thunderbirds support staff assisted me as I received a final preflight medical check by the team's flight surgeon Major Michael "Doc" Carletti, and tried on my flight uniform and partial pressure G-Suit. I'll be counting on the G-Suit to keep the blood flow in my upper body toward my heart and brain. The team checked my flight helmet for comfort and I was ready to fly.

The Thunderbirds fly with the newer F-16C/D which support the lighter Block 52 Pratt and Whitney F-100 engine providing an additional 3,600 pounds of thrust over the previous version. The nearly fifty foot long aircraft has a wingspan of 31 feet across and a thrust of up to 29,100 pounds. The pilots call the F-16 a rocket.

Major Fisher gave me a final briefing on what to expect preflight thru landing. Touch this and do not touch this in the cockpit rules were given and I hurriedly took it all in as he spoke with comfort. This Air Force team was superb as they both educated and relaxed me as launch time neared.

Fisher and I walked out to our aircraft, Thunderbird 8, which was parked next to the six flight demonstration F-16C's. As I approached the red, white and blue high gloss painted aircraft, I looked up at the opened glass canopy and read Major Fisher's name identifying his aircraft. A grin then ran across my face as my eyes laid witness to a second name next to Fisher's below where the canopy closes shut. It read "Charles Atkeison".

After pausing to reflect on my black stenciled name, Fisher and I greeted the aircraft's support team with a firm handshake for each, and I then began to climb the ten foot tall blue slender ladder hung from the edge of the jet's cockpit to ingress my seat. The seat supports a multi-point harness and can be used as an ejection seat if an in flight emergency arises.

Major Fisher ascended the ladder and pointed out my cockpit displays, including my oxygen settings, the safe and arm device for my ejection seat and the fact that this flight included drinkable water in a bottle.

I inserted ear plugs followed by donning my flight helmet which sports the letters "USAF" in white. My oxygen mask was next and I placed it over my nose and mouth and locked it's strap to my helmet. A long grey hose extended down to the life-support controls on my starboard side.

Fisher's Air Force pilot call sign is "Drago", and prior to joining the Thunderbirds he served as an F-16 flight instructor. My flight was in good hands.

Five minutes to go, and I was comfortable in the cockpit breathing at 95% oxygen flow through my mask as we sat poised for flight. It was white knuckle time as I awaited a go from flight control. Air control between Dobbins ARB and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport gave Drago the "go" for departure and approval for steep ascent. Seconds later, our Fighting Falcon began moving toward take-off velocity.

At 10:27 a.m. EDT, our F-16D was wheels up from Runway 29 and we flew low and level for ten seconds as we neared 400 knots (460 m.p.h.), Drago exclaimed over his headset mic, "Ready to go?". And I replied, "Rock and roll, Thunderbirds are go!"

Lift-off! Major Fisher and I were pointed nose up, and in a rush with an acceleration of five times earth's gravity, we were launching into that deep blue sky. I radioed back, "Alllright!". Straight up we climbed for twelve seconds before performing a 360-degree roll to place us wings level nearly at 7,050 feet above. Our flight was on a northeasterly heading aimed toward our "flight box" over Snowbird MOA, an imaginary region where we would perform intense aerobatics devoid of other aircraft.

As I soared on the wings of a Falcon, I looked around at the earth below me. A cockpit alarm sounded and I turned to focus on the displays as we thundered across northwestern Georgia.

We began our aerobatics with the Clover Loop and right into a 5G-pull. Drago stated that the flight maneuvers we would be performing are the same in which the T-Bird solos fly during an air show. The only difference is the solos will be 150 feet above the airfield while our flight soared between 15,000 to 17,600 feet high.

"Pretty insane, isn't it... number 5 is doing that 150 to 200 feet above the ground," Major Fisher exclaimed following an inverted flat pass. "Pretty amazing. Lots of precision, lots of concentration."

During a Thunderbirds air show, it is the job of the two solos to give the crowds a true demonstration of the handling characteristics of the F-16. Lead Solo is #5 Major Blaine Jones and he is accompanied by #6 Major Jason Curtis, and they will excite an air show crowd every time as they speed low over the runway and perform a split maneuver which will make you wonder how do they do that?

Lead by Thunderbird 1 "Boss" Lt. Col. Greg Mosely, the team's diamond formation includes Major Joshua Boudreaux, Major Caroline Jensen and Major Curtis Dougherty. The diamond team trades performances with the solos during their forty minute show.

As Major Fisher and I began a nearly 7G maneuver high over the Smokey Mountains, I could again feel my G-suit inflate several bladders with air to help push the blood back up into my upper torso. And, with every turn and vertical motion we flew, I never felt uneasy and my stomach never twitched.

As we performed one of several inverted maneuvers, Fisher pointed out the beauty of the autumn leaves as he held us upside down 17,500 feet above eastern Tennessee for twenty seconds. During that brief time, I reflected on the landscape and cloud cover from my personal cupola high above.

The negative 1G of wings level inverted flight grew to be my favorite maneuver while we were aloft. The knife edge maneuver gave us the sensation of weightlessness as Drago rolled the F-16 on it's left side as we flew at a high rate of speed. We next touched the speed of sound as our majestic aircraft darted up to 575 m.p.h.

The F-16 remains a front line fighter around the globe with Airmen performing bombing runs during a time in need. Drago wanted to show me the handling of the F-16 and so we maneuvered into a simulated bombing run.

"This is something we would do in a close air support scenario over a low air or surface threat environment. We can orbit around a target," Drago began. "Once we have our eyes on the target, and we are ready, we would begin to roll in on the target and we get clearance to deploy a weapon." We then executed a 45-degree pass as we simulated the maneuver, "weapons away," Drago announced.

We concluded the late morning flight with a main gear touchdown upon the same runway at Dobbins exactly 61 minutes after we last touched the earth. Drago then slowly lowered the nose gear and we rolled out several thousand feet as we expended the aircraft's energy. A perfect ending to an incredible flight.

I learned more about what the hundreds of thousands of men and women of our United States military, and especially the Air Force, do each day. They live and work far away from home to perform a job they are good at as they defend and preserve our freedoms.

The Thunderbirds' crews from Nellis AFB near Las Vegas and the 94th Air Wing Division near Atlanta are great examples of how our military's Air Force is a well oiled machine demonstrating professionalism, both on the front lines across the globe and in our own communities with emergency assistance.

The Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron celebrated their 61st year in 2014, and the 31st year performing with the front-line fighter, the F-16. The team will perform at their final three air show sites as November approaches and the season wraps up over America's southwest.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)

Monday, October 06, 2014

Telescopes stand poised for Wednesday's total lunar eclipse

Backyard astronomers and public observatories across America will have telescopes trained on a total lunar eclipse Wednesday as the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon in a rare celestial event.

The Sun, Earth and Moon will align forcing our home planet to block the Sun's rays from reaching our lunar neighbor. The full Moon will take on an eerie reddish glow as the light is scattered through our atmosphere giving it the name Blood Moon.

Along the eastern coast of the U.S., the Moon will begin to set just after 7:10 a.m. EDT, providing three hours of lunar observation prior to Moon set in many areas. Clear to partly cloudy skies are also in the forecast for much of the United States.

"Look towards the west and you will see the full moon with a bite taken out of it - this is the lunar eclipse in progress," Atlanta's Tellus Science Museum astronomer David Dundee said on Monday. "Wednesday morning the Moon will enter the shadow of the Earth. By 6:24 a.m., the Moon will be totally in the shadow of the Earth it may turn a copper or reddish color.“

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center released an astronomers information sheet in support of times and locations to best view the second lunar eclipse of 2014. The space agency will host an online discussion and provide live video of the eclipse beginning at 3:00 a.m. and continuing until sunrise. NASA lunar experts will reach out to chat on social media as they seek reports from the public and lunar photography.

Several observatory's and museums will open before dawn to mark the occasion. Children waiting in line at the bus stop may have the chance to view the astronomical show.

“Since the eclipse begins a little after 4 a.m., we are hoping guests will join us at the museum before work or school for this magnificent opportunity to see a Total Lunar Eclipse in a fun and unique way," Tellus spokesperson Shelly Redd said on Monday. "The museum opens at 5:00 a.m. and will remain open after the eclipse is complete."

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science and technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)
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