‘This Week In Space’ – July 20, 2010
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Hello, and welcome. Our theme this week is detente – as in the easing of hostilities between rivals. It is what we saw in space 35 years ago this week when Apollo and Soyuz joined together in low earth orbit – and it is what we are seeing unfold over the past few days in Washington – as Congress and the White House try to compromise on what is next for NASA after the shuttles are retired. The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved an authorization bill that embraces much of the white house space vision – with some key differences: Under the Senate plan, NASA will launch Atlantis one more time next year…meaning there are three shuttle missions remaining. NASA will begin work on a heavy lift rocket immediately – not in 2015 as Obama had promised. As for the similarities: Ferrying cargo and astronauts to low Earth orbit will still fall to commercial companies, the ISS gets a lease extension to 2020, and there is more money earmarked for space and earth science and aeronautics. The man leading the charge on this Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. He bristled when reporters suggested the new plan mandates NASA do exactly what the Augustine Commission warned against: throwing out Constellation to start work on an underfunded new rocket.
What this does is set up a new heavy lift vehicle, on a deadline of December 31, 2016, and this is achievable because of the policy that has been set by the committee. The committee cannot tell NASA how to design a rocket, but we can give policy direction to the executive branch of government, and we’ve done that in the bill. Using shuttle derived technology, building on that, making it evolvable, not building the largest rocket around but starting in the range of 75 to 100 metric tons, that is evolvable, and that would be built over the course of those six years within a budget of 11 and a half billion dollars. Now that is doable. And if anybody tells you that it is not, then if I were you I’d question their particular agenda.
In the interest of detente – the White House released a statement – saying in part – the Senate bill “represents an important first step towards helping us achieve the key goals the President has laid out…“We look forward to continuing to work with Congress to help advance an ambitious and achievable space program, one that helps us blaze a new trail of innovation and discovery.”
Thirty five years ago this week, they were blazing a whole new trail in space – when two space capsules – a Soviet Soyuz and an American Apollo rendezvoused and docked in low earth orbit. The Apollo Soyuz Test Project captured the attention of the world – as the two nuclear superpowers put their differences aside – and found they had much in common. This past week the surviving crew members came to New York City – to the OMEGA Watch Boutique on Fifth Avenue to celebrate the anniversary – hey what better place to mark a moment in time??
What they accomplished on their mission planted the seed for the international space station. U.S. Commander Tom Stafford flew with two rookies – one of whom was his boss – the late Deke Slayton – one of the original Mercury Seven – was grounded for years because of a heart murmur – but finally got a clean bill of health. Also on board Apollo: Vance Brand – who later commanded three shuttle missions. The Soviets were led by Alexey Leonov – the first person to walk in space. He flew with Valery Kubasov. The three of them gathered for a panel talk in the OMEGA Boutique – yours truly served as moderator. Unfortunately Alexey Leonov was not feeling well – and could not join us.
Thanks to OMEGA for hosting that great event – as you probably know, the company has a long, rich history with human spaceflight.
In fact, there would not be an international space station without Apollo Soyuz – and while the Senate bill we told you about envisions another mission for Atlantis – until that happens the Endeavour sts-134 mission is still the last in line – and the external fuel tank that will power that shuttle to orbit arrived at the Kennedy Space Center a few days ago – after a safe voyage across the BP tainted gulf. The mission is set to fly at the end of February.
STS-134 will deliver a comic ray detector called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station. Engineers at ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands are currently putting the AMS through some final testing – they released some new video this week. When they wrap up, they’ll be packing it up for shipment to the Kennedy Space Center, and ultimately Endeavour’s payload bay. AMS is designed to search the universe for dark matter and antimatter. It will be the last big piece of science equipment that the shuttle will take to the ISS.
Another important milestone for those of you who would like to catch a brief ride to space…the Virgin Galactic’s Enterprise – or Spaceship 2 – flew with a crew the other day – not to space mind you – she remained firmly attached to the belly of the mothership – Eve. Maybe next time the Branson and Rutan led team will cut the chord…and see how she glides.
the Japanese Space Agency, or JAXA – has been hard at it doing some cool things of late. The solar sail experiment called IKAROS, launched in May, is accelerating through space as designed…pushed along by photons of light. JAXA confirmed last month that the sail had unfurled, but held off on the high-fives until they could be sure that it is zipping along as planned. The 680 pound spacecraft is more than 11 million miles from Earth, headed toward Venus. And Japanese scientists have cracked open the Hayabusa sample return canister. You remember Hayabusa – its the spacecraft designed to gather dust from an asteroid and return it to Earth for analysis. Here it is streaking across the sky over the South Pacific en route to a parachute landing in the Australian Outback on June 13th. The good news is there IS dust in there. What still needs to be determined is the origin of the dust particles - are they from asteroid Itokawa, or are the dust bunnies from Earth? I guess that is why they have clean rooms. Wish my teenagers had them…
Speaking of clean rooms – the one at The Jet Propulsion Lab is a busy place these days. That is where they are assembling – the Mars Science Lab – known as Curiosity – it is spinning its wheels – and that’s a good thing. These six aluminum wheels are bigger than car tires, and were just installed on the rover over the past few weeks. Engineers are putting the wheels through their paces…testing each actuator, or motor, to make sure they are all functioning properly. This rover will have six-wheel drive, and is designed to roll over large rocks and climb steep hills without tipping over. Beats a hummer – and that radioactive battery power gives it great mileage. Launch is slated for late next year.
New pictures from the Solar Dynamics Observatory show the arcing magnetic loops of an active solar region in profile. Pretty cool. SDO captured these extreme ultraviolet images earlier this month, just as the loops where rotating into view. These structures are linked with solar flares, and several small ones did erupt from this region. Can’t wait to see what sort of arcs SDO will show us next time a major flare shoots off.
All that talk about solar flares reminded us about the Zombie Satellite – researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Lab say there is more evidence a solar storm fried ZombieSat – more formally know as Intelsat’s Galaxy 15 – back on April 5th. Instruments aboard NASA’s STEREO spacecraft indicate a coronal mass ejection associated with a moderate-size solar flare hit Earth just when Galaxy 15 went rouge. ZombieSat is apparently drifting along on a stable and predictable path. Though command and control has been lost, it’s still transmitting. So while operators say a collision is unlikely, The Zombie could interfere with other birds – so don’t bang on your TV set – blame it on the Zombie…
Back now to that Apollo Soyuz Anniversary event at the OMEGA Boutique in New York City. All five members of that crew wore OMEGA Speedmaster professional watches – more commonly known as the moon watch. – like this one…
We are gratified that Omega is joining us a sponsoring us this week – and we thought you might like to hear the surprising origins of OMEGA’s ubiquitous presence in space:
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Thanks so much to our sponsor OMEGA. We really appreciate it. Next time on “This Week In Space” – it’s our last episode of the season – but we’re not going anywhere and neither are THESE guys who are locked into a habitat for 520 days. Say what you want about those Mars 500 guys, they are keeping it clean. But in space, no one can hear you scrub. Join us for that and more – we’ll see you then.