Wednesday, August 17, 2016

NASA To Launch Spacecraft To Intercept Asteroid, Return Sample To Earth

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - In just three weeks, NASA will launch the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft to travel to an asteroid and bring a sample back to Earth.

The 4,650-pound (2,110-kilogram) fully-fueled spacecraft will launch aboard an Atlas V 411 configuration  rocket during a 34-day launch period that begins September 8, and reach its asteroid target in 2018.

Launch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. EDT on Thursday, September 8, 2016, from  Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. There is a 120 minute window for each launch opportunity.

After a careful survey of the near-Earth asteroid Bennu to characterize the asteroid and locate the most promising sample sites, OSIRIS-REx will collect between 2 and 70 ounces (about 60 to 2,000 grams) of surface material with its robotic arm and return the sample to Earth via a detachable capsule in 2023.

Bennu is believed to be one of the oldest asteroids in our solar system. Scientists expect Bennu may hold clues to the origin of the solar system and the source of the water and organic molecules that may have made their way to Earth.

Bennu may also harbor organic material from the young solar system. Organic matter is made of molecules containing primarily carbon and hydrogen atoms and is fundamental to terrestrial life. The analysis of any organic material found on Bennu will give scientists an inventory of the materials present at the beginning of the solar system that may have had a role in the origin of life.

Photo credit: NASA

Monday, August 15, 2016

Astronaut Access Arm and White Room Installed At Cape Canaveral Air Force Station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - Weighing about 90,000 pounds and reaching almost 50 feet, the CST-100 Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room were installed in the Crew Access Tower on Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Monday morning.

The installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room by NASA, Boeing and United Launch Alliance (ULA) completes the major construction of the first new Crew Access Tower to be constructed on Florida's Space Coast since the Apollo era.  

Crew members will cross the arm and prep in the White Room before climbing through the Starliner’s hatch and getting into place for liftoff on Commercial Crew Program missions carrying astronauts to the International Space Station to conduct research in orbit.

A standard commercial crew mission to the station will carry up to four NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members and about 220 pounds of pressurized cargo. The spacecraft will remain at the station for up to 210 days, available as an emergency lifeboat during that time.

Space Launch Complex 41 is one of the most active launch complexes in Brevard County, Florida, and construction of this tower has taken place between launches, with segments of the structure being built off-site and then assembled at the pad.

Photo credit: NASA

Deep Canyons Filled With Methane Found On Saturn's Moon Titan

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has found deep canyons on Saturn's moon, Titan, that are flooded with liquid methane.

A research paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters describes how scientists analyzed Cassini data from a close pass the spacecraft made over Titan in May 2013. During the flyby, Cassini's radar instrument focused on channels that branch out from the large, northern sea Ligeia Mare.

Data from Cassini's observations reveal that a network of channels named Vid Flumina are narrow canyons, generally less than half a mile wide, with slopes steeper than 40 degrees, and measure 790 to 1,870 feet  from top to bottom.

The branching channels appear dark in radar images, much like Titan's methane-rich seas. This suggested to scientists that the channels might also be filled with liquid, but a direct detection had not been made until now.

Key to understanding the nature of the channels was the way Cassini's radar signal reflected off the bottoms of the features. The radar instrument observed a glint, indicating an extremely smooth surface like that observed from Titan's hydrocarbon seas. The timing of the radar echoes, as they bounced off the canyons' edges and floors, provided a direct measure of their depths.

The presence of such deep cuts in the landscape indicates that whatever process created them was active for a long time or eroded down much faster than other areas on Titan’s surface. The researchers' proposed scenarios include uplift of the terrain and changes in sea level, or perhaps both.

"It's likely that a combination of these forces contributed to the formation of the deep canyons, but at present it's not clear to what degree each was involved. What is clear is that any description of Titan's geological evolution needs to be able to explain how the canyons got there," said Valerio Poggiali of the University of Rome, a Cassini radar team associate and lead author of the study.

ABOVE IMAGE: NASA's Cassini spacecraft pinged the surface of Titan with microwaves, finding that some channels are deep, steep-sided canyons filled with liquid hydrocarbons. One such feature is Vid Flumina, the branching network of narrow lines in the upper-left quadrant of the image. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI

United Launch Alliance Delta IV Rocket Launch From Cape Canaveral Set For August 19, 2016

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -  A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Medium (4,2) configuration rocket carrying two U.S. military space surveillance satellites is scheduled to lift off on Friday, August 19, 2016, between 12 a.m. and 4 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. 

Launch Weather 80% 'GO'

According to the latest weather forecast from the United States Air Force 45th Weather Squadron, there is an 80% chance overall of acceptable weather conditions for Friday's early morning launch. The primary weather concern for launch is cumulus clouds. 

Mission Payload

The launch mission, dubbed AFSPC-6, will deliver two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites to near-geo­synchronous orbit. 

The twin GSSAP spacecraft, built by Orbital ATK, will support U.S. Strategic Command space surveillance operations and collect space situational awareness data allowing for more accurate tracking and characterization of man-made orbiting objects. 

From a near-geosynchronous orbit, the satellites will have a clear, unobstructed and distinct vantage point for viewing other satellites without the interruption of weather or the atmospheric distortion that can limit ground-based systems. The GSSAP satellites will operate near the geosynchronous belt and will have the capability to perform Rendezvous and Proximity Operations which allows for the space vehicle to maneuver near a resident space object of interest, enabling characterization for anomaly resolution and enhanced awareness, while maintaining flight safety. 

Data from GSSAP will help the U.S. military make timely and accurate orbital predictions, increase U.S. intelligence of the geosynchronous orbit environment, and further enable space flight safety to include satellite collision avoidance. GSSAP satellites will communicate information through the world wide Air Force Satellite Control Network ground stations, then to Schriever Air Force Base, CO where 50th Space Wing satellite operators of the 1st Space Operations Squadron will oversee day-to-day operations.

Image credit: ULA

Sunday, August 14, 2016

SpaceX Successfully Lands Rocket For The Sixth Time

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- For the sixth time in less than a year, SpaceX successfully launched and landed a first stage Falcon 9 rocket while also sending a payload into low Earth orbit. 

Prior to Sunday's landing, SpaceX had successfully launched and landed a total of five Falcon 9 rockets - two on land and three on drone ships in the ocean.

The Falcon 9 rocket carrying a JCSAT-16 communications satellite lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 40 at 1:26 a.m.  Eastern Standard Time on Sunday, August 14, 2016.

Two-and-a-half minutes later, the first and second stages separated. While the second stage continued to carry the satellite into orbit, the first stage then began its descent back through Earth's atmosphere.

Landing On Drone Ship

Ten minutes after launch, SpaceX confirmed that the first stage successfully landed on the autonomous drone ship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of Florida.  

SpaceX noted prior to launch that a successful landing during this mission may be difficult because the satellite's Geo Stationary Transfer Orbit requires the first stage rocket to reach a significantly higher altitude than other recovered missions. That meant that Falcon 9's first stage rocket came down much faster with less fuel to slow its descent than prior landing attempts.

Last month, a first stage rocket recovered from a prior JCSAT mission was test fired by SpaceX.


JCSAT-16 is a commercial communications satellite for SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation, a leading satellite operator in the Asia-Pacific region that provides high-quality satellite communications to its customers. 

Photo credits: SpaceX 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

NASA: Venus May Once Have Been Habitable

Venus may have been habitable for up to 2 billion years of its early history, according to computer modeling of the planet’s ancient climate by NASA scientists.

“Many of the same tools we use to model climate change on Earth can be adapted to study climates on other planets, both past and present,” said Michael Way, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). “These results show ancient Venus may have been a very different place than it is today.”

Today, Venus is an inhospitable world. It has a crushing carbon dioxide atmosphere 90 times as thick as Earth’s. There is almost no water vapor. Temperatures reach 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius) at its surface.

Scientists have long theorized that Venus formed out of ingredients similar to that of Earth but followed a different evolutionary path. Measurements by NASA’s Pioneer mission to Venus in the 1980's first suggested Venus originally may have had an ocean. However, Venus is closer to the sun than Earth and receives far more sunlight. As a result, the planet’s early ocean evaporated, water-vapor molecules were broken apart by ultraviolet radiation, and hydrogen escaped to space. With no water left on the surface, carbon dioxide built up in the atmosphere, leading to a so-called runaway greenhouse effect that created present conditions.

Previous studies have shown that how fast a planet spins on its axis affects whether it has a habitable climate. A day on Venus is 117 Earth days. Until recently, it was assumed that a thick atmosphere like that of modern Venus was required for the planet to have today’s slow rotation rate. However, newer research has shown that a thin atmosphere like that of modern Earth could have produced the same result. That means an ancient Venus with an Earth-like atmosphere could have had the same rotation rate it has today.

Another factor that impacts a planet’s climate is topography. Scientists believe that ancient Venus may have had more dry land overall than Earth, especially in the tropics. That limits the amount of water evaporated from the oceans and, as a result, the greenhouse effect by water vapor. This type of surface appears ideal for making a planet habitable; there seems to have been enough water to support abundant life, with sufficient land to reduce the planet’s sensitivity to changes from incoming sunlight.

Way and his GISS colleagues simulated conditions of a hypothetical early Venus with an atmosphere similar to Earth’s, a day as long as Venus’ current day, and a shallow ocean consistent with early data from the Pioneer spacecraft. The researchers added information about Venus’ topography from radar measurements taken by NASA’s Magellan mission in the 1990s, and filled the lowlands with water, leaving the highlands exposed as Venusian continents. The study also factored in an ancient sun that was up to 30 percent dimmer. Even so, ancient Venus still received about 40 percent more sunlight than Earth does today.

“In the GISS model’s simulation, Venus’ slow spin exposes its dayside to the sun for almost two months at a time,” co-author and fellow GISS scientist Anthony Del Genio said. “This warms the surface and produces rain that creates a thick layer of clouds, which acts like an umbrella to shield the surface from much of the solar heating. The result is mean climate temperatures that are actually a few degrees cooler than Earth’s today.”

ABOVE IMAGE: Observations suggest Venus may have had water oceans in its distant past. A land-ocean pattern like that above was used in a climate model to show how storm clouds could have shielded ancient Venus from strong sunlight and made the planet habitable. Credits: NASA

SpaceX Rocket Launch From Cape Canaveral Set For Sunday Morning

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- The launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a JCSAT-16 communications satellite is scheduled to liftoff no earlier than 1:26 a.m.  Eastern Standard Time on Sunday, August 14, 2016, from Space Launch Complex 40 with a two-hour launch window.

Launch Weather 90% 'GO'

According to the latest weather forecast from the United States Air Force 45th Weather Squadron, there is a 90% percent chance overall of acceptable weather conditions for Sunday's early morning launch.  The primary weather concern for launch is cumulus clouds. 

Attempted Landing On Drone Ship

Following stage separation, the first stage of the Falcon 9 will attempt an experimental landing on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship.  But a successful landing after launch may be difficult because the Geo Stationary Transfer Orbit requires the first stage rocket to reach a significantly higher altitude than other recovered missions. This means that Falcon 9's first stage rocket will becoming down faster with less fuel to slow its descent than prior landing attempts.

The first stage rocket for the last JCSAT mission did successfully land and was recently test fired by SpaceX.


JCSAT-16 is a commercial communications satellite for SKY Perfect JSAT Corpoation, a leading satellite operator in the Asia-Pacific region that provides high-quality satellite communications to its customers. 

Photo credit: SpaceX 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

NASA: 200 Meteors Per Hour During Peak Perseid Meteor Shower Tonight

Night skywatchers can expect up to 200 meteors per hour during the peak of the August 2016 Perseid Meteor Shower tonight.

“Forecasters are predicting a Perseid outburst this year with double normal rates on the night of August 11-12,” said Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. “Under perfect conditions, rates could soar to 200 meteors per hour.”

An outburst is a meteor shower with more meteors than usual. The last Perseid outburst occurred in 2009.

Every Perseid meteor is a tiny piece of the Comet Swift-Tuttle that orbits the sun every 133 years. Each swing through the inner solar system can leave trillions of small particles in its wake. When Earth crosses paths with Swift-Tuttle’s debris, specks of comet remnants hit Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrate in flashes of light. 

Most years, Earth might graze the edge of Swift-Tuttle’s debris stream, where there’s less activity. Occasionally, though, Jupiter’s gravity tugs the huge network of dust trails closer, and Earth plows through closer to the middle, where there’s more material.

This may be one of those years. Experts at NASA and elsewhere agree that three or more streams are on a collision course with Earth.

Meteor Fireballs Expected

In addition to hundreds of meteors per hour, the Perseid Meteor Shower produces more fireballs than any other meteor shower.  A fireball is a very bright meteor, at least as bright as the planets Jupiter or Venus.   

Cooke thinks the Perseids are rich in fireballs because of the size of the parent comet. Comet Swift-Tuttle has a huge nucleus--about 26 km in diameter," said Cooke. "Most other comets are much smaller, with nuclei only a few kilometers across. As a result, Comet Swift-Tuttle produces a large number of meteoroids, many of which are large enough to produce fireballs."

2016 Perseid Meteor Shower: Where To Watch

The Perseids meteor shower will be visible almost all over the world - but will be best seen in the northern hemisphere.   A major determining factor on where a good place is to watch the Perseids meteor shower is local cloud cover and artificial light pollution. Lie on your back and look straight up. Allow about 45 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark.

2016 Perseid Meteor Shower: Where To Look

You can tell if a meteor belongs to a particular shower by tracing back its path to see if it originates near a specific point in the sky, called the radiant. The constellation in which the radiant is located gives the shower its name, and in this case, Perseids appear to come from a point in the constellation Perseus. Photo credit: NASA/JPL

2016 Perseid Meteor Shower: When To Watch

The best way to see the Perseids is to go outside between midnight and dawn on the morning of August 12th. Although the moon is bright enough to blot out some of the meteors, it sets around 1 a.m. on the morning of August 12th, just at the peak time for the best Perseid viewing.  

TOP PHOTO: An outburst of Perseid meteors lights up the sky in August 2009 in this time-lapse image. Stargazers expect a similar outburst during next week’s Perseid meteor shower, which will be visible overnight on Aug. 11 and 12. Photo Credits: NASA/JPL

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

NASA Builds HDR Camera To Capture Detailed Images Of SLS Rocket Engine Test

PROMONTORY, Utah - While thousands turned out to watch NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) recently complete a full-scale test of a booster for the most powerful rocket in the world, few knew that another major test was occurring simultaneously. NASA’s High Dynamic Range Stereo X (HiDyRS-X) project, a revolutionary high-speed, high dynamic range camera, filmed the test, recording propulsion video data in never before seen detail.

NASA says that the HiDyRS-X project originated from a problem that exists when trying to film rocket motor tests. Rocket motor plumes, in addition to being extremely loud, are also extremely bright, making them difficult to record without drastically cutting down the exposure settings on the camera. Doing so, however, darkens the rest of the image, obscuring other important components on the motor.

Traditionally, video cameras record using one exposure at a time, but HiDyRS-X records multiple, slow motion video exposures at once, combining them into a high dynamic range video that perfectly exposes all areas of the video image.

The massive booster test served as a rare opportunity to test the HiDyRS-X hardware in a full-scale environment. The Qualification Motor 2, or QM-2, test was held at Orbital ATK’s test facility in Promontory, Utah, and was the second and final booster test before SLS’s first test flight in late 2018 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

The camera recorded several seconds of the two-minute test before the power source was suddenly disconnected. In an unanticipated series of events, the sheer power of the booster shook the ground enough for the power cable to be removed from the power box.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Moon Express Becomes First Private Company Approved To Land On Moon

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - The Federal Aviation Administration has approved the first first private company, Moon Express, to land a spacecraft on the Moon.

"The FAA has determined that the launch of the payload does not jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States," the federal agency stated on Wednesday.

Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty signed by the United States, Soviet Union, and United Kingdom, requires that “The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.”

The FAA consulted with the Department of State as to the relevant portions of the Treaty and considered comments from the Department as part of the payload determination. The FAA and Department of State concluded that Moon Express' proposed missions are in compliance with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty. However, the FAA noted that this determination does not extend to future missions by Moon Express, Inc. or similar missions from other entities.  Any future requests for a payload determination from Moon Express or another entity will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Moon Express plans to launch three robotic spacecraft to land on the Moon starting in 2017. But the missions will not disturb and historic Apollo landing sites. In 2012, NASA issued a detailed publication titled: "NASA’s Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts" which lays out recommendations to future lunar missions where not to go, or disturb, prior U.S.  Lunar Mission sites.

"NASA recognizes the steadily increasing technical capabilities of space-faring commercial entities and nations throughout the world, and further recognizes that many are on the verge of landing spacecraft on the surface of the moon," the U.S. space agency noted in the publication. "In the 50 years since the first lunar missions, the spaceflight community has not formally provided recommendations to the next generation of lunar explorers on how to preserve the original artifacts and protect ongoing science from the potentially damaging effects of nearby landers."

Moon Express said the the company is focused on building a sustainable, full-service space exploration business, is also pursuing the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE, a competition to land a privately funded spacecraft on the Moon, travel 500 meters and transmit back high-definition video and images to Earth. The company was awarded $1 million by Google earlier this year as the only team to flight test a prototype of its lander.

"Our goal is to blaze a trail to the Moon to unlock its mysteries and resources so we can improve life on Earth," said Moon Express Co-Founder and CEO Bob Richards.