Orbital Sciences Launches a New Rocket

ImageUp until now the word Antares has had only one meaning in our language, the given name of a star, but not anymore.  Sure, it is still the name of a giant red binary star, the brightest in the constellation Scorpio, about 424 light-years from Earth. The word Antares has its roots in ancient Greek meaning simulating Mars.  It looked red to them, just like Mars.

However, things change.  On Sunday, April 21, from a beach on Wallops Island Virginia, our own Orbital Sciences launched its newest horse in its extensive stable of rockets, the Antares. And for the first time in my memory, a first launch of a new rocket didn’t end prematurely in a puff of smoke or debris cloud. It went so smoothly that almost no one heard about it. That’s success in the rocket industry but a marketing failure.

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Congress and the NASA Budget – Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

The Congress, in its shortsighted manner, has cut the Commercial Crew Development budget for NASA from $850 million to $406 million for Fiscal Year 2012. The result is that NASA will likely push back the scheduled launch of commercial manned spacecraft from SpaceX (Dragon), Orbital (Cygnus) or Boeing (CST-100) by two to three years.

Currently, America is paying, and will pay Russia around $450 million per year to transport American astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The additional two to three years translates to between $900 million and $1,300 million in additional cost to NASA in future years in order to save $444 million next year. Net loss to NASA and America is $456 million or more.

In the meantime, Congress appropriated several Billion dollars per year for a giant rocket that NASA did not request, and for which Congress has failed to appropriate any money for payloads to fly on the giant rocket.

Given Russia’s recent failures with the Soyuz rocket and the haste with which the doomed Fobos-Grunt mission to Mars was assembled, improperly tested and launched, America may want to consider shifting funds from the giant rocket no one wants (except the politicians in Florida, Utah and Alabama) to the Commercial Crew program, which everyone wants in order to get out from under the world’s sole reliance on Russia to support the ISS.

Atlantis – 8 July 2011 First Launch Attempt

STS-135 July 8
STS-135 two hours before launch
Image Credit: KSC TV Feed

At 6:44 AM Phoenix time (1344 UTC) launch is about 2 hours away. At the moment we are ‘no go’ due to cloud density over the launch site. NASA-TV is here, and the Kennedy Space Center video feeds can be found here for weather and pad cameras.

Weather 90 Minutes Before Launch
Image Credit: KSC TV Feed

The countdown is at T-minus 20 minutes and holding, with a ten minute built in hold.

At 7:21 AM Phoenix (1321 UTC) the count has resumed and will go down to T-minus 9 minutes for the next built in hold.

Ops Commit
Ops Commit Criteria 60 minutes before launch.
Image Credit: KSC Video

Weather is now a ‘go’. The Ops Commit Criteria are all green.

The launch is now at T-minus 9 minutes, with a 41 minute built in hold. This will set up the launch, with the window opening at 15:22:13 UTC.

The launch is expected at 15:26 UTC. The countdown will resume at 15:17:46 UTC

Poling of the main systems is complete, and everything is go.

T-minus 4 minutes.

Steering check of the three main engines. Solid rockets are armed. The auxiliary power units have been started.

T-minus 2 minutes.

T-minus 60 seconds.

T-minus 31 seconds and a failure at the moment of hand-off to the internal computer.

Retraction of the event arm confirmed.

The count has resumed.

And launch.

Image Credit: NASA TV

Seven minutes into the flight, all systems are go.

At eight minutes we have main engine cutoff and external tank separation.

All three APU systems and all three fuel cells are operating normally.

Atlantis will now begin chasing the International Space Station, anticipating docking two days from now.

Atlantis – The Last Space Shuttle Flight

STS-135 on the pad July 4th
Image Credit: KSC TV Feed

Processing of the space shuttle Atlantis continues today, July 4th, in preparation for the July 8 launch.

Here are the launch windows for Atlantis (times are UTC):

  • 8 July – 1521-1531
  • 9 July – 1459-1509
  • 10 July – 1433-1443

After that is a five day period reserved for a Delta IV launch. The next launch window is 16 July beginning at 1211 UTC.

The primary objective of STS-135 is to deliver a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) carrying 9,500 lbs of cargo, a Lightweight Multi-Purpose Equipment Support Structure Carrier (LMC), and a Station Power Distribution Unit (SPDU). The LMC will carry the Robotics Refueling Payload to the ISS and return the failed Pump Module (PM) from the ammonia cooling system. Additional ISS equipment and supplies will be carried up.

The current mission for Atlantis is to deliver as much stuff as possible to the Space Station before we come to rely on the Russian Soyuz M, European ATV, Japanese HTV, SpaceX Dragon and Orbital Sciences Cygnus resupply missions.

A long history of the Atlantis missions can be found at NASASpaceFlight:

A complete guide to NASA TV coverage can be found here.

Stargazing at the Challenger Space Center

The Summer Triangle (Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra. ) is high in the sky. Saturn, Mars, Venus and Mercury are visible in the evening. And a new crescent Moon makes its entry the second week of August.

To learn more about these astronomical objects, the Challenger Space Center is hosting its monthly Family Stargazing Night this coming Saturday, 7 August 2010, starting at 7:00 PM. Join Tony and Carole LaConte from Stargazing For Everyone for a guided tour of the heavens, and some hands on telescope observing time.

Since this is August, it is likely to be warm. Bring water, lawn chairs or blankets.

The Challenger Center
21170 N 83rd Ave
Peoria, AZ 85382

Tel 623.322.2001

Admission ranges from $5 to $8.

August Sky
Looking South at The August Sky
Image Credit: Jodrell Bank / University of Manchester

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NASA has announced that the Kepler Mission has released the first 43 days of science data on more than 156,000 stars.

Kepler is designed to continuously monitor a star field in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. The objective is to find Earth like planets circling solar-like stars in what is known as the Habitable Zone, the region around a star where water can exist as a liquid. Since planetary orbits in this region take about a year to complete, the Kepler mission is designed to last through November 2012. This will allow Kepler to catch a planet fitting the description making three transits of its star during the three and a half year mission. Kepler was launched 6 March 2009.

When a planet transits a star, it blocks some of the light from the star. If an observatory is looking at the star at just the right moment, it will see the star dim and then brighten again when the planet finishes passing in front of the star. The effect is very small. A transit will dim the starlight by 100 parts per million, and last from 2 to 16 hours if the planet is in the habitable zone.

Kepler is designed to monitor 100,000 stars continuously for three and a half years. This is enough time to capture three transits by a planet. Kepler has only one instrument on board. This is a 0.95 meter telescope equipped with a photometer. The telescope has a large field of view in order to capture all the stars simultaneously. The field of view is about the size of your hand held at arms length (105 square degrees).

Data from the Kepler mission is archived at Space Telescope Science Institute. The three missions in which the Institute participates are Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope, and Kepler.

Kepler Diagram
Diagram of the Kepler Spacecraft
Image Credit: NASA

Kepler Photometer
Kepler Photometer Focal Plane Assembly
Image Credit: Ball Aerospace

The photometer (left) is a single instrument, composed of 42 Charge Coupled Devices (CCDs). Each of the square units in the image are two 25 mm x 50 mm CCDs, each comprised of 2200×1024 pixels.

The CCDs are read every three (3) seconds and the data is integrated over 30 minutes. The instrument has the ability to detect an earth sized object transiting a star in 6.5 hours of integrated data.

The instrument has a spectral bandpass from 400 nm to 850 nm. Data from the individual pixels that make up each star of the 100,000 main-sequence stars are recorded continuously and simultaneously. The data are stored on the spacecraft and transmitted to the ground about once per month.

The targeted region of space and the star field in the field of view can be seen here.

At right is the Kepler spacecraft during construction. The size of the Solar Array and the Telescope (wrapped in gold foil) can be seen compared to the technician working on the Solar Array.

The scientific objective of the Kepler Mission is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems. This is achieved by surveying a large sample of stars to:

  • Determine the percentage of terrestrial and larger planets that are in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars
  • Determine the distribution of sizes and shapes of the orbits of these planets
  • Estimate how many planets there are in multiple-star systems
  • Determine the variety of orbit sizes and planet reflectivities, sizes, masses and densities of short-period giant planets
  • Identify additional members of each discovered planetary system using other techniques
  • Determine the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems

Kepler with Solar Array (interior)
Image Credit: NASA and Ball Aerospace

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