Penultimate Discovery On Easter Monday

Space Shuttle Discovery has been cleared to launch on its penultimate mission on April 5th - Easter Monday. NASA mission managers announced the date after an intensive flight review that took into account a potentially mission threatening leaky helium pressurization valve on Discovery. The launch date for Discovery on the STS-131 mission is set for 6:21am EDT on Easter Monday, April 5th.

Discovery's payload cannister is prepared for the STS-131 mission

After a system test that showed the valve had stuck, tests were conducted that subsequently showed the reading was a one-off and couldn't be reproduced. The impact of the valve failing during the mission is low, so the decision to proceed was taken after a unanimous vote by mission managers. Another minor issue of a potentially loose ceramic inserts around the heat shield tiles of the flight deck was also deemed low risk.

Keep an eye on Spacers as the launch date approaches.

Image credit: NASA/Troy Cryder
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NASA Aims For Warp Drive

The term they use is 'novel engines', but we can dream can't we. NASA announced on Friday that it was awarding $50 million in grants to companies for novel engine research, which focus more on the use of electricity and non-toxic chemicals than the current batch of engines in use today. Worried by the pollution of the space around Earth and the exodus of precious Earth resources into space, NASA has taken the bold step of looking toward a cleaner future of space travel by taking a closer look at some of the more innovative ideas currently being researched.

The grants were not only hailed by the agency as helping to "explore space as much as we can", but also to look into improving aviation technologies as well. Alternative fuels for aircraft and low-noise propulsion are an ongoing effort by NASA as it looks into ways of improving aviation.

This announcement comes hot on the heels of President Obama's new plans for exploration outlined in the 2011 budget, which include call for NASA to move away from 'concrete' plans for space exploration and focus on new technology and bringing private enterprise into the space arena.

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ISS Timeline In A Flash

Check out this cool Flash animation of the ISS assembly sequence from USA Today.


It's easy to forget the sheer volume of work that has went in to the construction of the International Space Station to date, it is quite simply a marvel of human achievement that each of the partner nations should be deservedly proud of. There is often a barrage of criticism aimed at the station, from being over budget to focusing on Low Earth Orbit too much, from diverting funding from more 'needy' projects to its exclusivity to astronauts, but I think it will go down in history as a vital step in our early learning. The Apollo era space race was a rush job that got us to the moon with a big slice of luck on our shoulder. Political pressures got us to another world and what we learned from that experience was a tiny fraction of what we have learned since, and we still have a huge amount to learn. The ISS program has not only provided us with much needed knowledge of how to build large scale structures in the harsh environment of space, but also that to cooperate with each other to do so is by far the best approach. As we stand on the cusp of an era of private and commercial space travel, we should look back with a sense of wonder and pride at what we - mere humans built.

Tip of the space helmet to Spacer Jeff for finding this little gem.

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Virgin Loses Its Virginity...

...in the skies that is. Today saw the inaugural flight of Virgin Galactic's suborbital aircraft SpaceShipTwo from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Designed to be carried aloft by a mother aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, the future spacecraft rolled down the desert runway and took to the skies gracefully for the first time, staying aloft for over three hours. This was of course a shakedown flight and represented a systems and hardware test, but still the significance of the first flight of the first commercial suborbital carrier is a significant event on the human spaceflight calendar.

After winning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004, Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne concept was adopted by Sir Richard Branson and developed into a fully viable passenger space vehicle launched from the belly of a mother aircraft. Virgin Galactic is aiming to begin passenger operations in late 2011 or early 2012, but at $200,000 a pop it isn't going to make it into that many Christmas stockings in the first year. Maybe year two... here's hoping.

Things are definitely moving forward in the Human Spaceflight department. Slowly, deliberately, but still forward. Let's just hope it takes off (pun intended) and is a commercial success so the cost can be brought down to a level where us pleb Spacers can have a go!

Happy Dreaming, Spacers!

Image credit: Virgin Galactic
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Soyuz Plunges To Icy Earth

American astronaut Jeff Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev undocked their Soyuz spacecraft from the ISS early on Friday and plunged into a fiery re-entry before making a soft landing on - snow! After six months of observing the snowstorms on Earth from the comfort of orbit, the two space fliers got to experience 20f (-6c) temperatures first had as they cracked open the hatch. The capsule itself was pulled on to its side and dragged by strong winds in the main parachute, but it was not as exciting or dangerous as a bobsled run. The recovery vehicles were delayed by the heavy snow, but helicopters were able to land straight away and assist as the two got used to a steady gravity again.

Expedition 22 Touches Down In Snow

During their mission the Expedition 22 crew played host to two Shuttle missions and saw the installation of the new Tranquility node and Cupola. The departure of Williams and Suraev leaves a three person crew on the ISS for about two weeks until the compliment goes back up to six with the arrival of the Expedition 23 crew set to launch on April 2nd. Three days later on April 5th, Space Shuttle Atlantis is set to make its penultimate jaunt into space on a resupply mission to the station.

It's going to be a busy spring in orbit, so keep an eye on Spacers for a fix of space news.

Images credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
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SpaceX Takes One Step Closer

Private rocketeer company SpaceX took a step closer to becoming a viable space transportation provider last Saturday, with the successful completion of a test engine firing of its Falcon 9 rocket platform. The test was dogged by delays from glitches and weather, but with it now under their belt the next step is a test launch for flight qualification, which could occur as early as April 12th. Sitting on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral's U.S. Airforce facility, the Falcon 9 rocket has been tentatively scheduled for the first available opportunity between March and May.

The Falcon 9 rocket engine test

Nine Merlin engines power the first stage of the Falcon 9, each one delivering 125,000 pounds of thrust, which will send its Dragon payload spacecraft into orbit with a capacity for 20 tons of cargo. The Dragon module is capable of reaching the ISS, and once the cargo phase is thoroughly tested it will be qualified for human spaceflight.

For more information check out the SpaceX website: http://www.spacex.com

Image credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX
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Another Mars Avalanche!

In a blatant outburst of nostalgia, the HiRISE satellite in orbit around Mars revisited an old favorite that was feature on the very first Spacers post - an actual photograph of an avalanche in progress on Mars!


This time HiRISE has caught a snap of the actual debris falling. To give it a bit of perspective, the pale blue area at the bottom left is Martian ice, in this case the most likely substance is carbon dioxide, or dry ice. We are looking down the cliff almost vertically which makes it a pretty sheer face. I haven't seen the radar data but I would guestimate the height in hundreds of meters.

It was cool the first time I saw it, and it's just as cool this time. Mars is a planet we really should be exploring in person, and images like this can only serve to inspire us to try harder and make that first step.

You can check out more images from HiRISE at: http://hirise.lpl.arizona.edu/

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
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Flying Tonight - Mars Style

Now that we have a wealth of data from our small army of orbiting satellites and ground probes on the planet Mars, we can run so many simulations that are incredibly realistic and accurate that it almost feels like we have actually been there ourselves, in person. This isn't the case of course as going to the red planet isn't an easy task at all, and simulations are all we have - for now. The latest batch of simulations come from a combination of orbital imagery and high resolution radar elevation data from the HiRISE satellite. The result, is this cool video.

Someday we will go to Mars and although videos like this are excellent eye candy, they also provide a heads up for planning where to actually land. We don't want to just plonk ourselves down in just any old crater, we want to have plenty of things to look at and study. Geologists in particular can glean an insight into the origin of the features we see here - vast gullys that look as if they have been carved by water, ridges of mountains that look volcanic, huge sand dunes that look like they took millennia to form. Looking at the planet using this kind of technology will eventually lead to the all important location of that first human step.

Happy Flying, Spacers!

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Radar Love - ISS Style

Coolest of cool pics. TerraSAR-X - a German satellite that maps the planet with radar - recently turned its radar imager toward a fellow orbiting object, the International Space Station. The result is somewhat spooky, but kinda cool in a space geeky kind of a way.

The ISS - in Radar


Image credit: DLR
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WISE Unveils Our Hidden Neighbors

We've already been stunned by the images coming from WISE, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, and its latest releases are no exception. Behind a veil of galactic dust that has previously obscured our view, two galaxies have been revealed. Big deal, I hear you say, but these galaxies are so close to us - in relative terms of course - that they should be the brightest galaxies in our sky! At a piffling 10 million light years away, Maffei 1 and Maffei 2 are a huge lenticular galaxy and gorgeous barred spiral galaxy that have made short work of stunning astronomers, who just love new things to look at.

Maffei 1 and 2 peek out from behind the dust

Click the image above for a larger view. Seen toward the upper left in this image, the two galaxies are revealed as a familiar spiral and a glowing blue orb set against the edge of the massive structure of the Heart Nebula, a mere 6,000 light years distant. Because the image data is predominantly infrared the colors we see are mapped from the different infrared frequencies which enables us to see what we normally could not. The blue light is 3.4 and 4.6 micron, and dominated by starlight. The green is 12 micron, and red is 22 micron. If we could see in infrared, these colors are pretty close to what we would see. Now, excuse me while I just stare at this for a while longer.


Visit the WISE website for more of its stunning images: http://wise.ssl.berkeley.edu/

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team
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STS-131: Let's Hear It For The Girls!

It seems as though men have dominated the recent spate of Shuttle missions with maybe one or two women added in for good measure. Well, with the STS-131 mission, Space Shuttle Discovery is set to redress that imbalance with three female crew riding aboard for the trip to the ISS. Veteran American astronaut Stephanie Wilson is joined by two first-time female fliers, American astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, and Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki as mission specialists. They don't outnumber the men just yet though, as they will be flying with four American guys, Commander Alan Poindexter, Pilot James P. Dutton, and mission specialists Rick Mastracchio and Clayton Anderson.

The STS-131 Crew with their mission patch

The launch of Discovery is targeted for 6:21am EDT on April 5th, and will bring a logistics module packed with much needed science racks and supplies to the station. During the 13 day mission, Mastracchio and Anderson will conduct three spacewalks to replace an ammonia tank assembly, retrieve a Japanese experiment from the station’s exterior and switch out a rate gyro assembly on the S0 element of the station’s truss.

Stephanie Wilson's last visit to the station was back in November of 2007 when she accompanied former female astronaut Lisa Nowak on the STS-120 mission that delivered the Harmony Node to the station, which opened up the capability to add the European Columbus module and the Japanese Kibo module.

It is great to see more female crew taking part in the human spaceflight program, I personally feel there is a need for lot more diversity in gender and cultural representation as it tends to be thought of as the American boys and their toys. Diversity creates more interest across the cultures and sexes, and the more interest we can generate in human spaceflight the better. Although we are losing the capability of the Shuttle at the end of this year, there is a lot of movement on the ground from private space enterprises. Government space agencies have set the ball rolling, and now it is time for the rest of us to have a go at the drive into space.

Keep up the good work girls! (oh, and guys too).

Image credit: NASA
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Discovery Heads To The Pad

Space Shuttle Discovery made its way to launch pad 39A early this morning as preparations continued for the STS-131 mission, which will be the penultimate mission for the orbiter. Essentially a resupply mission, Discovery will haul a multi-purpose logistics module to the International Space Station filled with science racks and station supplies. With the ISS now 98% complete and permanently manned with a six-person crew, the demand for science has finally overtaken the need for station keeping. It has been an incredible journey that I have followed closely since the beginning, and with the end of the Shuttle era approaching we have an extremely impressive space station in orbit that we as a planet can be proud of. Sure there are political opponents and questions about its validity and cost, but to achieve such an amazing feat of engineering is indeed worthy of praise.

Discovery arrives at launch pad 39A

As the April 5th launch date approaches it will mark the final days of the Space Shuttles as there will be only one remaining launch for each of the active orbiters, Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis. Three launches remaining for three orbiters. The fleet has helped build the ISS, which has now ironically been granted an extension to its active orbital life, gracing our skies until at least the year 2020. Access to space will become the domain of other countries and private companies, like SpaceX, that successfully conducted an engine test at the cape this week. With the final missions the Shuttle fleet has its work cut out to loft as much cargo as they can to the station to ensure it is not only fully outfitted, but stocked with spare parts and supplies.

Spacers will be keeping a close eye on the final Shuttle missions, so catch a launch while you can.

Images credit: NASA
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Long Lazy Days Of... Earthquakes?

I can't even begin to imaging the hardship facing the communities affected by the recent earthquakes, destruction of that scale is hard to compute for a mere human brain. The planet Earth is a dynamic, ever-changing entity and what we don't really pay much attention to is the fact that there are many earthquakes happening every single day. 24 yesterday alone - yes, twenty-four. The largest of those was a 5.6 magnitude quake in Guatemala, and the smallest a 2.2 magnitude quake in Southern California. The land upon which we walk and build and live and thrive has been moving around the globe for billions of years. Sometimes it moves very slowly, building pressure over time to make mountain ranges, and sometimes it moves very suddenly and sharply - like the major 8.8 quake in Chile last Saturday.

The last 30 days of earthquakes

All this movement does have an effect on the planet as a whole, and on this occasion the 8.8 quake resounded across the globe and left lasting measurable footprints. Firstly, the Figure Axis of the Earth - basically the center of rotation - was moved by about 3 inches. Secondly, the day got shorter - but only by 1.26 milliseconds. Of course this kind of change happens every day in varying degrees, and major quakes change things ever so slightly, but usually over time those changes are balanced out.

So in effect the Earth sped up a little, which is fine because the Moon is slowing it down with its constantly shifting pull on the oceans - the tides. Eventually we will slow down to match the Moon's trick of always showing the same face to us, but not for a few hundred million years yet. Just remember though, that what we know as the Earth today is just a snapshot in time of where it all is now. It is changing all the time and will eventually be unrecognizable to us. We are also a new addition to the landscape, and we must adapt and change with our mother planet if we are to survive. Sure we are tampering with the atmosphere and warming the globe, but in her long history Mother Earth has been through much worse. The simple fact is that the Earth will survive that process, but we, alas may not. Enjoy those long lazy days caused by earthquakes while you can.

Spare a moment of thought for those suffering through the motions of Earth today.

Image credit: US Geological Survey
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