Some spaceflight news

The shuttle mission STS-134 (Endeavour) has had its date of launch put back until November (from July 29th) so that some of the instruments it will be carrying to the International Space Station can have some extra time to be worked on (not so that the numbers, which refer to the order the missions were commissioned in, line up…). The instrument in question is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which will measure the composition of particles striking the station. The AMS is having its cryo-magnetic replaced by a permanent one in order for it to run longer with an eye on the extension to the life of the ISS that has recently been provided. This means that it will now follow STS-133 (Discovery), to be launched on September 16th and so it will become the new final ever shuttle launch. STS-132 (Atlantis) is still slated to launch on May 14th. A full launch manifest for the ISS missions, including automated transfers of cargo and Soyuz based crew launches, can be seen here.

On May 18th, the Japanese space agency, JAXA, is to launch two missions in one rocket. The first is Akatsuki (not the deadly crime gang), or PLANET-C, a Venus orbiter that will compliment the ESA Venus Express mission, presently gathering data from the second rock from the Sun. The second is Ikaros (not the big deadly laser satellite in the James Bond film Die Another Day). Ikaros is a hybrid engine designed to test a number of technologies in deep space. When the cylinder reaches orbit, it will open up and unfurl a 14 metre solar sail, thinner than a human hair but still incorporating solar panels. Particles from the Sun will then push the device along, which ground controllers angling the sail to alter velocity. Additionally, the electricity generated by the thin solar panels will be used to power an ion drive.

Three missions already in space are to celebrate milestones in their missions. The first is GIOVE-B. This mission contains a maser clock that provides the kind of accuracy that will be required of satellites in the Galileo network of navigation satellites, which is Europe’s version of the USA GPS system. The Galileo In Orbit Validation Experiment intended to prove the passive hydrogen maser clock was the best tool for the job and up to the task of coping in space for the required time. Two years to the day after its launch and more than 400 days since being switched on, things are going well. Meanwhile, as Spirit softly slumbers in the sand pits of Mars, she and sister rover Opportunity are about to pass the record set by Viking 1 for the longest duration experiment on Mars. Viking 1 ran for Six years and 116 days, a duration that will be passed by Spirit this week. But as the long in the tooth rover is presently snoozing, celebrations will have to hold off until she has been awoken after the Martian winter to make sure the old girl is still going. Meanwhile Opportunity, which arrived at the red planet a little later and is still running about and very much known to be alive, will also break the record in early May. Not bad for a couple of ninety-day rovers with solar panels rather than long lasting Viking style batteries.

The Lunar Rover Lunokhod 1, which rambled around the surface of the Moon for ten months alongside sister rover 2 in the early seventies, has been rediscovered. The rover, along with other lunar missions including the Apollo missions, took retroreflectors with it to the surface of the Moon, the intention being that lasers on the Earth could be bounced off them once operations ceased. It was tried after Lunokhod 1 first shut down, but no return signal was detected. It has been tried intermittently since, but again, no cigar. Now LRO data have identified the position of the rover to be significantly far from the assumed position. With the new coordinates, a laser was fired and a bullseye hit. The reflections from 1 are five times as strong as those from 2, which is significant in studies of lunar dust, which tends to gather on these reflectors over time.

Another mission still producing science after its primary objectives were long completed is Cassini, which is nearing the end of its first mission extension, Equinox. Cassini plans to turn itself into a gravity probe as it flies to within 100km of the surface of the moon Enceladus. Using precise telemetry to determine by how much the probe is being pulled one way and another, the ground crew hope to probe the gravitational field of the body. As different compositions have different densities, masses and hence gravitational effects, the data may help rule in and out such hypotheses as the size and composition (salty or not) of subsurface water beneath the tiger stripes that fire water particles into orbit around Saturn and whether or not subsurface materials at the south pole are heated and caused to rise in a lava-lamp like way to create the strange heat signatures and repaving in that region. This event will occur sometime tomorrow.

On Universe Today, part eleven of the 13 things that saved Apollo 13 series to celebrate 40 years since Apollo 13 has been published and it is – the 1969 movie Marooned. This movie features a situation where three men are stuck in an Apollo like spacecraft with failing batteries. One of the ground crew watched the movie and ruminated on how he would solve the problems just hours before he was disturbed by the news that this was exactly how his next several days were going to go…

The Herschel Infrared Space Telescope will be showing off its wares at a press conference on the 6th of May. Details of the schedule and how to register to be there are here. The theme will be Revealing the Hidden Side of Star Formation, and the location the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC), Noordwijk, The Netherlands.

Finally, and at the other end of the scale, a brainstorming session to develop technologies and methods for space missions, StarTiger, has come up with a method for observing the parts of the solar corona closest to the disc of the Sun. The problem is most spacecraft have coronographs blocking out the Sun’s light that are too big to see the closest bits just above the solar surface, meanwhile visible and filtered light observations see the solar disc outshine the corona massively. The end result of six months huddled together in a laboratory in France under the auspices of the Space Technology Advancements by Resourceful, Targeted and Innovative Groups of Experts and Researchers program is a series of technologies, software, requisite mathematical models and a completed demonstration model of a space mission that would see two spacecraft flying in perfect formation, 150 metres apart with one blotting out the Sun for the other, controlled with millimetre precision.

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2 responses to “Some spaceflight news

  1. Fantastic post – great collection of info!

    • Thanks – and I was in the middle of updating it because there was even more stuff I’d missed out… must always check my feeds before I press post, not after…

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