This Week In Space

Rhiannon Williams 2016-07-01

This week, spacefans, we have rocket, astronauts, quasi-moons and a look ahead to the Juno mission. I highly recommend the cool videos!

SOMETIMES IT REALLY IS ROCKET SCIENCE!

The second and final qualification motor (QM-2) test for the Space Launch System’s booster took place on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion System’s (SLS) test facilities in Promontory, Utah. During the SLS flight, the boosters provided more than 75 percent of the thrust needed to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth, the first step on NASA’s Journey to Mars. This was the last full-scale test for the booster before SLS’s first uncrewed test flight with NASA’s Orion spacecraft in late 2018, a key milestone on the agency’s Journey to Mars.

“This final qualification test of the booster system shows real progress in the development of the Space Launch System,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Seeing this test today, and experiencing the sound and feel of approximately 3.6 million pounds of thrust, helps us appreciate the progress we’re making to advance human exploration and open new frontiers for science and technology missions in deep space.”

The booster was tested at a cold motor conditioning target of 40 degrees Fahrenheit – the colder end of its accepted propellant temperature range. When ignited, temperatures inside the booster reached nearly 6,000 degrees. The two-minute, full-duration ground qualification test provided NASA with critical data on 82 qualification objectives that will support certification of the booster for flight. Engineers now will evaluate this data, which was captured by more than 530 instrumentation channels on the booster.

When completed, two five-segment boosters and four RS-25 main engines will power SLS on deep space missions. The solid rocket boosters, built by NASA contractor Orbital ATK, operate in parallel with SLS’s main engines for the first two minutes of flight. They will provide more than 75 percent of the thrust needed for the rocket and Orion spacecraft to escape Earth’s gravitational pull.

“Today’s test is the pinnacle of years of hard work by the NASA team, Orbital ATK and commercial partners across the country,” said John Honeycutt, SLS Program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.“SLS hardware is currently in production for every part of the rocket. NASA also is making progress every day on Orion and the ground systems to support a launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. We’re on track to launch SLS on its first flight test with Orion and pave the way for a human presence in deep space.”

Credits: NASA

The initial SLS configuration will have a minimum 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capability. The next planned upgrade of SLS will use a powerful exploration upper stage for more ambitious missions, with a 105-metric-ton (115-ton) lift capacity. In each configuration, SLS will continue to use the same core stage and four RS-25 engines.

WHAT NEXT FOR TIM PEAKE AFTER SAFE LANDING?

Us Brits and European types welcomed home astronaut Major Tim Peake, along with NASA Commander Tom Kopra, and Soyuz Commander Yuri Malenchenko after their 6 month sojourn at the Space Station.

Upon touchdown, NASA’s mission control in Houston said the Soyuz had landed on its side after being caught by the wind, but this was a fairly routine occurrence. “The search and recovery forces are now making their way around the aircraft so they can secure the aircraft and make sure all its systems are safe before they can extract the crew,” it said.

Credits: Guardian.com

The three men were soon extracted one by one and attended to by flight surgeons and nurses. Peake had his eyes closed and looked tired, but then smiled and gave a thumbs up to waiting reporters. The astronaut told the press he was“good thanks, very good,” and that the journey “was incredible, a real ride. Best ride I’ve been on ever.”

He added: “It’s just been fantastic, from start to finish … I’m just truly elated, just the smells of Earth are so strong, it’s wonderful to be back … to feel the fresh air. I look forward to seeing the family now.” Peake said spending 186 days on the ISS had been a “life-changing experience. […]I’m going to miss the view, definitely. I’d love some cool rain right now, it was very hot in the capsule and the suit’s very hot … I might be having some pizza later, maybe a cold beer as well,” he said.

The experience, according to one Nasa astronaut, Doug Wheelock, is “like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but the barrel is on fire,” while the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield described the descent as “physically extremely violent – it’s like 15 explosions followed by a car crash.”

The NASA public affairs officer Dan Hewitt said: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen better weather than the one we have now … all the teams out here actually got to see the capsule touch down, that’s something I’m never going to forget, it was phenomenal to see. All the crew members are out of the capsule, they’re going to now enjoy the weather, their first fresh air in over six months.”

Tim Peake’s Principia mission was an eventful and busy six months in space. In the first month after his launch on December 15, 2015, Tim conducted a spacewalk. He also drove a rover across a simulated Mars terrain from space, and helped to dock two spacecraft. Tim took part in numerous experiments for ESA and international partners. Highlights include using the Space Station airlock to study Tim’s lungs, monitoring his sleeping patterns to learn how humans adapt to life without normal daylight, and recording how many calories he consumed to prepare for missions further from Earth.

Aside from his maintenance and science duties, Tim also enthralled the world via social media and ran a marathon in space. The next ESA astronaut to travel to the Station will be Thomas Pesquet of French nationality, scheduled for launch in November.

Now he’s home he will be a guinea pig being put through a barrage of tests to see how his body has coped with his time in space. Coming back to Earth has led to problems like dizziness and vertigo due to inner ear issues.

“His work will be far from finished,” the ESA has stated. “Many scientists will be eager to get more data on how his body and mind have reacted to his time in space. But first, Tim must adapt to living on Earth again.” The former helicopter test pilot will already have undergone some checks. “Some experiments demand immediate access to Tim before his body changes under the influence of gravity,” an ESA spokesperson said.

I thank Tim Peake. Let’s hope you’re not the last ever British astronaut.

THAT’S NO MOON!

Whatever you may have read, Earth does not in fact have a new moon, but its interesting nevertheless. Its a small Near Earth Asteroid that is a quasi-satellite and will be hanging out in our vicinity for a few centuries before gravity sends it in a new direction.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Since 2016 HO3 loops around our planet, but never ventures very far away as we both go around the sun, we refer to it as a quasi-satellite of Earth,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “One other asteroid — 2003 YN107 — followed a similar orbital pattern for a while over 10 years ago, but it has since departed our vicinity. This new asteroid is much more locked onto us. Our calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth’s companion for centuries to come.The asteroid’s loops around Earth drift a little ahead or behind from year to year, but when they drift too far forward or backward, Earth’s gravity is just strong enough to reverse the drift and hold onto the asteroid so that it never wanders farther away than about 100 times the distance of the moon,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“The same effect also prevents the asteroid from approaching much closer than about 38 times the distance of the moon. In effect, this small asteroid is caught in a little dance with Earth.”

Asteroid 2016 HO3 was first spotted on April 27, 2016, by the Pan-STARRS 1 asteroid survey telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, operated by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and funded by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The size of this object has not yet been firmly established, but it is likely larger than 120 feet (40 meters) and smaller than 300 feet (100 meters).

JUNO SET TO MAKE CLOSE PASS OF JUPITER

On July 4, 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will fly the closest ever to the giant planet to within 4,667 kilometers (2,900 miles) in order to gain science about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

“At this time last year our New Horizons spacecraft was closing in for humanity’s first close views of Pluto,” said Diane Brown, Juno program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Now, Juno is poised to go closer to Jupiter than any spacecraft ever before to unlock the mysteries of what lies within.”

A series of 37 planned close approaches during the mission will eclipse the previous record for Jupiter set in 1974 by NASA’s Pioneer 11 spacecraft of 43,000 kilometers (27,000 miles). Getting this close to Jupiter does not come without a price — one that will be paid each time Juno’s orbit carries it toward the swirling tumult of orange, white, red and brown clouds that cover the gas giant.

“We are not looking for trouble, we are looking for data,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Problem is, at Jupiter, looking for the kind of data Juno is looking for, you have to go in the kind of neighborhoods where you could find trouble pretty quick.”

The source of potential problems can be found inside Jupiter itself. Well below the Jovian cloud tops is a layer of hydrogen under such incredible pressure it acts as an electrical conductor. Scientists believe that the combination of this metallic hydrogen along with Jupiter’s fast rotation – one day on Jupiter is only 10 hours long – generates a powerful magnetic field that surrounds the planet with electrons, protons and ions traveling at nearly the speed of light. The endgame for any spacecraft that enters this doughnut-shaped field of high-energy particles is an encounter with the harshest radiation environment in the solar system.

“Over the life of the mission, Juno will be exposed to the equivalent of over 100 million dental X-rays,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno’s project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “But, we are ready. We designed an orbit around Jupiter that minimizes exposure to Jupiter’s harsh radiation environment. This orbit allows us to survive long enough to obtain the tantalizing science data that we have traveled so far to get.”

Secrets lie deep within Jupiter, shrouded in the solar system’s strongest magnetic field and most lethal radiation belts. On July 4, 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will plunge into uncharted territory, entering orbit around the gas giant and passing closer than any spacecraft before. Juno will see Jupiter for what it really is, but first it must pass the trial of orbit insertion.
Credits: NASA

While Juno is replete with special radiation-hardened electrical wiring and shielding surrounding its myriad of sensors, the highest profile piece of armor Juno carries is a first-of-its-kind titanium vault, which contains the spacecraft’s flight computer and the electronic hearts of many of its science instruments. Weighing in at almost 172 kilograms (400 pounds), the vault will reduce the exposure to radiation by 800 times of that outside of its titanium walls.

Without the vault, Juno’s electronic brain would more than likely fry before the end of the very first flyby of the planet. But, while 400 pounds of titanium can do magical things, it can’t do it forever in an extreme radiation environment like that on Jupiter. The quantity and energy of the high-energy particles is just too much. However, Juno’s special orbit allows the radiation dose and the degradation to accumulate slowly, allowing Juno to do a remarkable amount of science for 20 months.

“Over the course of the mission, the highest energy electrons will penetrate the vault, creating a spray of secondary photons and particles,” said Heidi Becker, Juno’s Radiation Monitoring Investigation lead. “The constant bombardment will break the atomic bonds in Juno’s electronics.”

With the continuing success of the New Horizons mission, I can’t help but be very excited as to what exciting science the Juno mission will discover.

See you next time spacefans!

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