Category Archives: Missions

Your Universe, October 2013

Gleb demonstrates the use of a spectroscope
For three days in early October, the South Cloisters and Garden Room of UCL played host to a festival of astronomy – Your Universe. Organised by Francisco Diego and Farah Islam from the department of Physics and Astronomy, the event was divided into two school days and one Saturday for the general public. The events saw demonstrations and explanations of different aspects of astronomy delivered by researchers in the department as well as two lectures, one each on Friday and Saturday evening.
Organisor, Francisco Diego
The quiet and darkness of the Garden Room saw three presentations. The first was a powerpoint presentation on exoplanets – planets orbiting stars other than our Sun – delivered by David Johnson. The second was the Magic Planet, a globe onto whose inner surface was projected the atmosphere or outer surface of the Sun, several planets and satellites in turn. Finally, a demonstration of spectroscopy and the fingerprints of colours emitted and absorbed by individual elements was given by Gleb with lamps and spectroscopes capable of splitting light into the rainbow of available colours.
Exoplanets, starting closer to home
Our Magic Planet
Atomic spectroscopy
In the South Cloisters, another five demonstrations lay in wait. Firstly Emily Hall expanded minds with a talk on cosmology, discussing Dark Matter, that mysterious thing that interacts only gravitationally with normal matter, and Dark Energy; the curious driving force behind the expansion of the universe. Next came a demonstration of robotic telescopes controlled over the internet from a NASA and Harvard maintained website. The third talk took in the life cycle of stars and an explanation of the HR diagram that astronomers use to categorise stars. The fourth demonstration was telescopes, including scopes either looking at the Sun in the light of hydrogen atoms or, during less clement weather, at postcards at the other end of the South Cloisters, and a display on the University of London Observatory, used by UCL students studying astronomy. Finally, a demonstration of the timescales involved in the creation of life and the universe rounded off the main set of events.
The Dark side of the Universe
Welcome to the MicroObservatory
Discussing the life cycle of stars
An intro to ULO
One of our display telescopes
The Sun in Hydrogen Alpha light
13.8 billion years of history on seven boards
Outside of the main event, more sedate displays in the Octagon and North cloisters were within easy reach of guests. These included an orrery, showing the motions of planets and major satellites around the Sun and a book of satellite images open at plates showing the Earth and Moon as seen by Lunar Orbiter 5. In the North Cloisters, the entire length of the space had been taken up by Pete Grindrod’s display; a high resolution image, ten miles of the surface of Mars as seen by the HiRISE camera on the MRO satellite, presently in orbit of the Red Planet.
Orrery in the Octagon
Lunar Orbiter 5 images
Ten miles of Mars
Five miles of Mars
Another five miles of Mars
With eight groups of primary and eight secondary age pupils per day, we saw around five hundred school children pass through the displays during the first two days and more than another hundred members of the public on Saturday. They also enjoyed two lectures; Mikako Matsuura’s description of seeing star birth through the eyes of the Herschel infrared space telescope and Francisco Diego’s answer to the question of why have we not found evidence of aliens.

Further pictures can be found here.


Springtime for Spacetime

Imagine you’re looking out onto a canal and see two insects on the surface of the water. Their weight presses down and causes a dip into which anything rolling on the surface could fall in towards them. This is how mass creates gravitational attraction by curving space-time – the bigger the insect, the larger the dip and the stronger the gravity. Now imagine the insects are moving about or spinning around. They can create small ripples on the water. Each ripple is like a small dip travelling out from the middle. Anything on the water’s surface the ripple passes under will be jiggled about, falling into the dips and pushed out by the peaks of the ripples. Space-time is a lot more rigid and the ripples a lot smaller, but it is that jiggling that missions like LISA are looking for.

Satellite launch problems

The $424 million Glory mission to study the impact of aerosols on climate variability has been delayed due to problems with the mechanisms operating its solar panels. Originally slated for a 22nd of November launch, it has now been pushed back to the 23rd of February to allow time to correct the problem. This will mean the satellite will launch almost a year after the same rocket type exploded, destroying another climate satellite.

Meanwhile, hot on the heels of the announcement of launch dates closing in for the human spaceflight aspect of Virgin Galactic, it appears the satellite launch part of the business is being allowed to slide for the time being, with its head departing and no replacement currently in sight. Branson talked up the utility of satellite launches for the education sector in his recent press event, but more as a speculative venture.

Some spaceflight stuff

There’s a lot of activity in the space sector at the minute in anticipation of the ending of one era and the start of another.

The end of the Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission will have to wait a little longer. Although the Japanese satellite made it back from the asteroid, got its canister back to Earth and the scientists recovered it and have identified particles inside the first collection chamber, the results of analysis of the particles are not likely until February or March next year.

The start of the third and final era of the Cassini mission. The satellite entered Saturn orbit in 2004 and conducted its four year mission with few problems. Since 2008, it has been running the Equinox mission extension. Now that has run out and the satellite has begun the seven year Solstice mission, which should see it to a spectacular end in the clouds of the ringed gas giant.

The Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX space telescope studies an unusual target. Rather than gathering light like an ordinary telescope, it looks at particles. In particular, it studies neutral particles created by the collision of the solar wind outflow from the Sun with the material between the stars. Last year, it saw the image of a ribbon in space, interpreted as a magnetic flux tube. Further studies in the intervening time have shown this pattern to be altering on the six month timescale of the new observations. The ribbon is becoming a simpler pattern, with fewer loops and twists. This is rather faster than the eleven year solar activity cycle impacting on a uniform medium would suggest, giving us an interesting glimpse of what is happening out there. Details are reported here and here.

CryoSat is a satellite at the start of its life. The polar explorer is presently in orbit gaining data on the thickness of ice around the globe. That data needs to be calibrated and validated before full operations can go ahead. The commissioning phase will be completed in mid-October, but further validation will be required and will have to be done on the job. A validation workshop will therefore be held in ESA/ESRIN in Frascati (Rome), Italy from the 1st – 3rd February 2011. Details and flyer here.

Another satellite even earlier in its life is China’s latest Lunar satellite, Chang’e-2, which blasted off on a Long March 3C rocket earlier today (1st of October) – video here. The satellite, the second of China’s lunar program, is set to arrive in orbit in around five days and is being tracked by China with the help of ESA. The probe’s spaceframe was created as a spare for the first lunar probe, but rather than create an entirely new probe for the second mission, researchers pinned the new technology onto the old spaceframe. The probe includes a laser altimeter, a CCD camera and an impacter. It is designed to gather data for future missions and test key technologies. The next lunar mission is aiming to put a rover on the lunar surface and eventually the program hopes to put a man on the Moon.

From launched missions to scheduled to launch missions. The updated manifest for the final launch of the space shuttle and construction of the International Space Station has been announced. ESA plans the launch of ATV2 on the 15th of February, with NASA launching the final shuttle mission, STS-134, on the 27th of February. Roscosmos is looking into extra Soyuz launch and landing slots to add capacity if needed. Meanwhile, STS-133 still has to be launched and the 1st of November mission will be previewed in a press conference on the 21st of October. Details here.

Also set to blast off in November, the Hylas-1 satellite has been undergoing tests in India and is now set to be shipped to the launch pad in French Guiana, ESA’s spaceport ArianeSpace. The satellite is a public-private partnership between ESA and Avanti Communications to provide broadband capacity to customers in the EU, part of the EU’s commitment to universal 25mps broadband by 2025. The spaceframe has been purchased from India with Avanti providing the communications technology.

Some satellites aren’t yet scheduled for launch, but need to be shipped here and there to get them tested and together. Three different space telescopes are presently at different stages of this process. The LISA pathfinder mission, which will test the technologies to be deployed on the LISA gravitational wave observatory, has spent the summer having its electromagnetic fields and responses tested and checked. LISA will use precisely controlled spacecraft to hunt for the tiniest variations in position and as such need an extremely high level of knowledge about where each part of the spacecraft is and what it is doing. Parts of the spacecraft have also undergone thermal testing to see how the proximity and direction of the Sun will alter the spaceframe. Meanwhile MIRI, the Mid InfraRed Instrument, of the James Webb Space Telescope, a massive venture that will act as a Hubble Space Telescope equivalent in the infrared, has arrived at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory for pressure testing. Finally, the Mechanical Service Module, which will act as the control system for the Gaia space telescope, which will perform precise astrometry, measuring the positions and motions of a billion stars in the Milky Way, has been put together. The thing now needs integrating with other parts that are scattered across the globe in various stages of construction and testing.

Onto future spacecraft and ESA has been asked to make a decision. Presently, it has the use of the ATV (Automatic Transfer Vehicle), an automated vehicle that can deliver stuff to the ISS, but then gets burnt up on reentry. A new vehicle, the ARV (Automatic Reusable Vehicle) has been proposed, which replaces the cargo module on the front of the ATV with a reentry capsule and also upgrades the service module. This would enable things to be returned from the ISS to the ground – such as science experiments and the like. However, there is some opposition to the craft, which some say has no future as the ATV is seemingly adequate for the jobs required of it and development of the ARV to full production capacity would probably leave little time before the ISS is decommissioned and the vehicle needing a new mission.

One possible new mission could be the development of private space hotels. There’s been a few proposals and actual launched vehicles from the USA, but now a consortium in Russia has announced plans to put up a space station. The CSS, or Commercial Space Station, will provide space for up to seven people (one commander and six non professionals) performing commercial research or just lounging about. The four room guesthouse will be supplied by Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, taking advantage of the lack of alternatives in getting people into space and Russia’s enhanced relative capabilities when others around do start popping up with new launch vehicles – all of which will also be able to partner with the station. Orbital Technologies has teamed up with a state run company and the Russian space agency to make the project a reality. The station is, unlike the ISS’s modular creation, expected to be launched on a single rocket. Construction is expected in 2012 or 2013.

Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo, the space tourism craft operated by Virgin Galactic, has been built and is expected to begin operations in around eighteen months. Sir Richard Branson’s sights are also turning toward providing commercial satellites for the education sector as well as potentially space hotels (getting crowded up there…) and eventually a lunar habitat.

Surrey Satellite Technologies Limited has announced three Earth Observation satellites, costing £100 million are to be built and launched in 2013 to provide data commercially as well as a £10 million satellite construction and testing facility in Guildford.

Now onto conceptual spacecraft and one NASA plan to create a heavy lifting spacecraft from modified shuttle boosters, fuel tanks and engines has been obtained by a website. At present, NASA works on the Ares rocket, derived from the solid rocket boosters that appear at the sides of the big orange fuel tanks that supply the stuff that the shuttles burn to get into orbit. This new design would lose the shuttle, move the engines from the orbiter to the fuel tank and stick a capsule on top, with some other frills. A power system has been developed that would see energy taken from the solar wind. The satellite has the capability of taking charge from the stream of ions and electrons that constantly whiz from the Sun to the outer regions of the solar system, but at present there’s no way to transfer the power back to Earth or any passing spacecraft that could use it.

And for some words on the future of spaceflight from those in whose hands it may potentially lie, the head of the UK Space Agency has been giving his view in an interview, as has the Director General of ESA.

Lost Apollo 11 footage found… and released a year ago.

Space and physics news tends to consist of many, many small sparks of inspiration doing the rounds and dying down for a bit. So many, that occasionally, should a spark previously lost amid a sea of news activity re-emerge in times of lower headline flux, it can be mistaken for new news.

A few websites such as Discovery picked up on the story of new cleaned up footage of the early moments of Apollo 11, thought lost by NASA, but recorded by other stations. The reports state the footage has been painstakingly reassembled. All this is true, except for one minor problem – the footage was released during the 2009 celebrations of 40 years since the 1969 missions, as Universe Today noted.

ISS crewmembers land successfully

Three crewmembers from the International Space Station have successfully undocked from the station and landed in Kazakhstan in vehicle Soyuz TMA-18. The event brings to an end the crew configuration known as Expedition 24. The new crew configuration, Expedition 25, will commence when three new crewmembers join the three still on the station. This is expected to happen on the 9th of October, with the arrival of Soyuz TMA-01M.

The Soyuz undocked at 03:02 BST today. It carried out a separation burn to put distance between it and the station. At 05:31, it performed a four minute twenty one second deorbital burn, slowing it down sufficiently to drop out of the skies. The three segments of the vehicle separated at 05:56 and the crew continued towards the ground in the descent module, which entered the atmosphere at 05:59. It landed near Arkalyk, in Northern Kazakhstan, at 06:23. Pictures like the one shown below are at NASA’s flickr photo stream:

Events were also captured on NASA TV and archived to their youtube channel, from which the following, showing the change of command, the aborted landing, farewells and the actual undocking and landing, were taken:

Two lunar views

Scientists at the European Planetary Science Congress 2010 have released a map of how the solar wind impacts differently on different parts of the lunar surface. Mapping how many solar wind protons are deflected by magnetic anomalies, the researchers found up to 20% of incoming solar wind particles were bounced away. Furthermore, maps of energetic hydrogen atoms created by the interaction of the 80% of solar wind protons that make it through and strike the ground show holes where the magnetic anomalies resisted the interactions. The size of the holes varies with the force of the solar wind, which blows with changing intensities, but the general outlook is one of areas of the lunar surface relatively protected from the ion flux and so less likely to be producing the minute amount of water that results from the interactions. Details here.

Someone who himself was once deflected on his way to the Moon is Jim Lovell of Apollo 13 fame (and previously Apollo 8, which orbitted but did not intend to land on the Moon). He discussed the future of spaceflight and other things over on Universe Today, the interview is here.