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NASA rendering of a Janus satellite rendezvousing with a binary asteroid. Image Credit: NASA

June 25, 2019 – A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder landed a coveted finalist spot in a new NASA program that will launch small satellites into space to explore the origins and evolution of the solar system. The CU Boulder group has proposed a mission that will send two of these miniature craft to rendezvous with, and study, a target binary asteroid – a pair of asteroids that revolve around each other in close proximity.

Daniel Scheeres, a professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, will lead the new mission, which is called Janus: Reconnaissance Missions to Binary Asteroids. Lockheed Martin will provide project management. Other CU Boulder team members on the mission include Jay McMahon, an assistant professor in aerospace engineering and Paul Hayne, an assistant professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

“The Janus mission is a testament to CU Boulder’s legacy of exploring the solar system and our close partnerships with aerospace industry leaders like Lockheed Martin,” said Bobby Braun, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science. “The university is a national leader in the development and operation of small spacecraft that generate unprecedented insights on our home planet, our sun, our solar system and exoplanets for a fraction of the cost of traditional space missions.”

Janus, named for the two-faced Roman god, will employ a pair of small satellites to collect unprecedented data on systems in which two asteroids revolve around each other a bit like Earth and its moon. The team already has its eyes on two sets of these duos – binary asteroids called 1991 VH and 1996 FG3, both of which have orbits that periodically bring them close to earth.

Once the group’s twin satellites meet up with those asteroids, the spacecraft will image them using visible light and infrared cameras, recording detailed information about how they move and what they’re made of.

“There are many theories of how binary asteroids form,” said Scheeres, “but we haven’t had the proper measurements to sort through them all and see which is correct. The Janus mission will do this and also help us better understand how primitive bodies in the solar system have formed and evolved over time.”

Janus is one of three selected finalist missions chosen through a NASA opportunity called Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx). Using small spacecraft – less than 400 pounds, or 180 kilograms in mass – SIMPLEx missions will conduct stand-alone planetary science investigations. Each of the three selected missions will have a maximum budget of $55 million. NASA plans to launch at least one of the selected finalists into space..

If NASA gives the Janus mission final approval, Lockheed Martin will build the twin spacecraft and manage their operations. Malin Space Science Systems will build the mission’s scientific instruments. Janus has a proposed launch date of 2022.

Members of the CU Boulder team are also co-investigators on NASA’s ongoing OSIRIS-Rex mission to study the asteroid Bennu. The Janus science team also includes CU Boulder alumnus Christine Hartzell at the University of Maryland and researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Planetary Science Institute, the University of Hawaii, and the Czech Academy of Sciences.

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This image, taken from a computer simulation, shows middle altitude clouds on Mars. Image Credit: Victoria Hartwick

June 25, 2019 – How did the Red Planet get all of its clouds? LASP scientists may have discovered the secret: just add meteors.

Astronomers have long observed clouds in Mars’ middle atmosphere, which begins about 18 miles (30 kilometers) above the surface, but have struggled to explain how they formed.

Now, a new study, published on June 17 in the journal Nature Geoscience, examines those wispy accumulations and suggests that they owe their existence to a phenomenon called “meteoric smoke”—essentially, the icy dust created by space debris slamming into the planet’s atmosphere.

The findings are a good reminder that planets and their weather patterns aren’t isolated from the solar systems around them.

“We’re used to thinking of Earth, Mars and other bodies as these really self-contained planets that determine their own climates,” said Victoria Hartwick, a LASP graduate student and lead author of the new study. “But climate isn’t independent of the surrounding solar system.”

The research, which included co-authors Brian Toon at CU Boulder and Nicholas Heavens at Hampton University in Virginia, hangs on a basic fact about clouds: They don’t come out of nowhere.

“Clouds don’t just form on their own,” said Hartwick, also of the Department of Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences (ATOC) at CU Boulder. “They need something that they can condense on to.”

On Earth, for example, low-lying clouds begin life as tiny grains of sea salt or dust blown high into the air. Water molecules clump around these particles, becoming bigger and bigger until they form the large puffs that you can see from the ground.

But, as far as scientists can tell, those sorts of cloud seeds don’t exist in Mars’ middle atmosphere, Hartwick said. And that’s what led her and her colleagues to meteors.

Meteoric Smoke

Hartwick explained that about two to three tons of space debris crash into Mars every day on average. And as those meteors rip apart in the planet’s atmosphere, they inject a huge volume of dust into the air.

To find out if such smoke would be enough to give rise to Mars’ mysterious clouds, Hartwick’s team turned to massive computer simulations that attempt to mimic the flows and turbulence of the planet’s atmosphere.

And sure enough, when they included meteors in their calculations, clouds appeared.

“Our model couldn’t form clouds at these altitudes before,” Hartwick said. “But now, they’re all there, and they seem to be in all the right places.”

The idea might not be as outlandish as it sounds, she added. Research has shown that similar interplanetary dust may help to seed clouds near Earth’s poles.

But she also says that you shouldn’t expect to see gigantic thunderheads forming above the surface of Mars anytime soon. The clouds her team studied were much more like bits of cotton candy than the clouds Earthlings are used to.

“But just because they’re thin and you can’t really see them doesn’t mean they can’t have an effect on the dynamics of the climate,” Hartwick said.

The researchers’ simulations, for example, showed that middle atmosphere clouds could have a large impact on the Martian climate. Depending on where the team looked, they caused temperatures at those high altitudes to swing up or down by as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius).

And that climactic impact is what gets Brian Toon, a LASP atmospheric scientist and professor in ATOC, excited. He said that the team’s findings on modern-day Martian clouds may also help to reveal the planet’s past evolution and how it once managed to support liquid water at its surface.

“More and more climate models are finding that the ancient climate of Mars, when rivers were flowing across its surface and life might have originated, was warmed by high altitude clouds,” Toon said. “It is likely that this discovery will become a major part of that idea for warming Mars.”

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LOFTID pack and deployment testing started with a load test to verify that the heat shield will perform as expected in flight under real-life conditions. Image Credit: NASA

June 17, 2019 – Testing is well underway as NASA’s LOFTID – short for Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator – prepares to catch a ride on an Atlas V rocket launch in 2022.

LOFTID is a cross-cutting technology designed to help deliver heavy cargos to any planet with an atmosphere.

In a few years, NASA and United Launch Alliance (ULA) will launch the six-meter inflatable heat shield from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to low-Earth orbit as a secondary payload along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System-2 weather observatory heading for polar orbit.

The technology, designed to enable more robust missions to destinations like Mars, Venus, and Titan could also potentially be used to return payloads to Earth and recover reusable engines from ULA’s next-generation Vulcan rocket.

Tests are ongoing as NASA prepares the inflatable heat shield for launch. Pack and deployment testing with Airborne Systems in Santa Ana, California, is underway. The pack and deployment testing started with a load test to verify that the heat shield will perform as expected in flight under real-life conditions. After that, LOFTID was tightly packed. It will soon undergo deployment testing followed by a second load test for another data point.

At NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia the team is performing a qualification tank blow down test to measure gas temperatures during venting of the nitrogen gas tanks that will be used during LOFTID’s first flight.

The LOFTID project is a part of the Technology Demonstration Missions program funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. The project is managed by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

NASA Tests Cutting-Edge Heat Shield Technology - YouTube

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AMERGINT Delivers Dream Chaser Serial And Virtual Front-End Processors To Sierra Nevada Corporation

Image Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

June 15, 2019 – AMERGINT Technologies has completed delivery of softFEP systems to Sierra Nevada Corporation for the Dream Chaser ground stations. SNC will deploy the softFEP Apps in a mixed hardware and virtualized environment to process the in-flight commanding and telemetry links for the Dream Chaser Cargo System. Read More

OSIRIS-REx Mission Breaks Another Orbit Record

On Jun. 12, 2019, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft went into orbit around asteroid Bennu for a second time — breaking its own record for the closest orbit of a planetary body by any spacecraft. Image Credit: University of Arizona

June 15, 2019 – On June 12, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft performed another significant navigation maneuver—breaking its own record for the closest orbit of a planetary body by a spacecraft. The maneuver began the mission’s new phase, known as Orbital B, and placed the spacecraft in an orbit 680 meters (2,231 feet) above the surface of asteroid Bennu. Read More


Opterus, Catalyst Space Accelerator Cohort Company, Wins $250,000 OEDIT AIA Grant


Opterus
Research and Development, Inc. of Loveland, Colorado, a current
Catalyst Space Accelerator participant, creates and manufactures
critical components for spacecraft structures, some of which were
successfully flown on eight space units in 2018.

June 15, 2019 – Catalyst Space Accelerator is proud
to announce that one of their current cohort companies has received a
$250,000 grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and
International Trade (OEDIT) Advanced Industries Accelerator (AIA) Grant
Program. Read More


Space Foundation To Celebrate Apollo 11 Moon Landing 50th Anniversary


June 14, 2019 – The success of the Apollo 11 Moon
landing in 1969 made possible our adventures in space today and laid a
foundation for future achievements in space. The Space Foundation
Discovery Center in Colorado Springs is celebrating the Apollo 11 Moon
landing with a spectacular family event on July 20, made possible by
premier sponsor Raytheon. Read More


Orion Launch Abort System Designed To Pull Its Weight For Moon Missions


Image Credit: NASA

June 14, 2019 – Astronauts inside NASA’s Orion
spacecraft will soar toward the Moon atop the Space Launch System (SLS)
rocket as part of the agency’s Artemis program to establish a permanent
presence at the Moon and learn the skills needed to send humans to
Mars. Crew members will journey aboard Orion with the confidence
knowing the spacecraft is specifically designed with a number of
features to support humans traveling to deep space, including a highly
capable Launch Abort System (LAS). The LAS is a structure on top of the
crew module that can fire within milliseconds and, with the crew
module attached, outrun the powerful rocket if an emergency arises
during launch. Read More


How NASA’s Spitzer Has Stayed Alive For So Long


This
artist’s concept shows NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in front of an
infrared image of the Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

June 14, 2019 – After nearly 16 years of exploring
the cosmos in infrared light, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope will be
switched off permanently on January 30, 2020. By then, the spacecraft
will have operated for more than 11 years beyond its prime mission,
thanks to the Spitzer engineering team’s ability to address unique
challenges as the telescope slips farther and farther from Earth. Read More


NASA’s Cassini Reveals New Sculpting In Saturn Rings


A
false-color image mosaic shows Daphnis, one of Saturn’s ring-embedded
moons, and the waves it kicks up in the Keeler gap. Images collected by
Cassini’s close orbits in 2017 are offering new insight into the complex
workings of the rings. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science
Institute

June 14, 2019 – As NASA’s Cassini dove close to
Saturn in its final year, the spacecraft provided intricate detail on
the workings of Saturn’s complex rings, new analysis shows. Read More


Lockheed Martin Delivers GPS III Contingency Operations (COps) Ground System Upgrade To Control More Powerful GPS Satellites


The
U.S. Air Force recently declared Lockheed Martin’s third GPS III
satellite “Available For Launch” or “AFL.” Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

June 13, 2019 – The next step in modernizing the
Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation with new
technology and capabilities is happening from the ground up! On May 22,
Lockheed Martin delivered the GPS III Contingency Operations (COps)
software upgrade to the U.S. Air Force’s current GPS ground control
system. Read More


Coalition Partners Graduate Space Capstone Course In NSSI Historic First


The
National Security Space Institute graduates its first Space 300 class
with international space operators at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado,
May 10, 2019. Image Credit: Air Force Space Command

June 13, 2019 – A year after former Secretary of the
Air Force, Dr. Heather Wilson, announced her initiative for an
increased coalition partner participation in space education, the
National Security Space Institute graduated its first Space 300 class
with international space operators, May 10, 2019. Read More


The Sun May Have A Dual Personality, Simulations Suggest


Sunspots appear on the surface of Earth’s sun. Image Credit: NASA/SDO

June 12, 2019 – Researchers at CU Boulder have
discovered hints that humanity’s favorite star may have a dual
personality, with intriguing discrepancies in its magnetic fields that
could hold clues to the sun’s own “internal clock.” Read More


NASA Opens International Space Station To New Commercial Opportunities


Image Credit: NASA

June 12, 2019 – NASA is opening the International
Space Station for commercial business so U.S. industry innovation and
ingenuity can accelerate a thriving commercial economy in low-Earth
orbit. Read More


NASA Spacecraft To Use ‘Green’ Fuel For The First Time


Ball
Aerospace engineers perform final checks before the spacecraft shipped
to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. GPIM is one of four unique
NASA technology missions aboard the June 2019 SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch
of the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Space Test
Program-2 (STP-2). Image Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

June 11, 2019 – A non-toxic, rosé-colored liquid
could fuel the future in space and propel missions to the Moon or other
worlds. NASA will test the fuel and compatible propulsion system in
space for the first time with the Green Propellant Infusion Mission
(GPIM), set to launch this month on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Read More


Students Boosting Technical Skills At NASA Wallops’ Rocket Week


Students prepare their experiments during a previous RockOn workshop Image Credit: NASA/Berit Bland

June 11, 2019 – University and community college
students will boost their technical skills as rocket scientists
building experiments for space flight during Rocket Week June 14-21,
2019, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Read More


More News

Five Questions For Daniel Baker
Source: CU Connections


Space Foundation Is Now Accepting Nominations For Space Technology Hall Of Fame
Source: Space Foundation


Inflatable Planetarium Lets Colorado Kids Explore The Cosmos
Source: University of Colorado Boulder


NASA Overcomes Military’s GPS Tweaks To Peer Inside Hurricanes
Source: Science/AAAS


Satellite Observations Improve Earthquake Monitoring, Response
Source: University of Iowa


The Formative Years: Giant Planets vs. Brown Dwarfs
Source: Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA)


Newly-Launched Russian Telecom Satellite Relying On Backup Thrusters
Source: Spaceflight Now


House Armed Services’ Space Launch Legislation Revised In 11th-Hour Deal
Source: SpaceNews


Bridenstine Estimates Artemis Cost At $20-30 Billion
Source: SpaceNews


ULA Preparing Proven Hardware And New Innovations For Vulcan
Source: NASASpaceFlight.com


Former Blue Origin And SNC Executive Joins Vector
Source: SpaceNews


Experiment To Demo ‘Cloud’ Technology In Space
Source: National Defense Magazine


Magnetic Field May Be Keeping Milky Way’s Black Hole Quiet
Source: NASA


New Chandra Control Center Opens
Source: NASA/Chandra X-Ray Center


MDA, A Maxar Company, Announces Successful Launch Of Canada’s RADARSAT Constellation Mission
Source: Maxar Technologies Inc.


Study Finds That A GPS Outage Would Cost $1 Billion Per Day
Source: Ars Technica


Bigelow Announces Plans For Private Astronaut Flights To Space Station
Source: Spaceflight Now


NASA Invests..

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Image Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

June 15, 2019 – AMERGINT Technologies has completed delivery of softFEP systems to Sierra Nevada Corporation for the Dream Chaser ground stations. SNC will deploy the softFEP Apps in a mixed hardware and virtualized environment to process the in-flight commanding and telemetry links for the Dream Chaser Cargo System.

“We’re extremely excited to be working with Sierra Nevada Corporation in support of this inspirational spacecraft,” said Brian Willette, AMERGINT’s Director of Narrowband Digital Systems. SNC is using AMERGINT’s softFEP processors to connect Dream Chaser’s ground control system to NASA’s Space Network utilizing Space Link Extensions (SLE) connections. Willette added, “Our proven experience with the NASA networks and protocols reduce risk for the upcoming first cargo mission.”

SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft is a multi-mission space utility vehicle which was selected by NASA under the Commercial Resupply Service 2 (CRS2) contract to provide cargo delivery, return and disposal service for the International Space Station (ISS). It will carry supplies and science experiments up to the ISS, and then return safely to earth via a runway landing. The Dream Chaser spacecraft is to provide a minimum of six cargo missions and is slated for its first mission in 2019.

softFEP products already support many of the mission critical links to the ISS and other related programs. Willette noted, “The configurability and flexibility of AMERGINT’s softFEP products are a perfect match in a mixed hardware and virtualized environment such as this.”

AMERGINT Technologies, Inc. is an employee-owned company in Colorado Springs, Colorado, delivering signal, protocol and data processing software applications to the satellite ground, test, and data acquisition markets.

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On Jun. 12, 2019, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft went into orbit around asteroid Bennu for a second time — breaking its own record for the closest orbit of a planetary body by any spacecraft. Image Credit: University of Arizona

June 15, 2019 – On June 12, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft performed another significant navigation maneuver—breaking its own record for the closest orbit of a planetary body by a spacecraft.

The maneuver began the mission’s new phase, known as Orbital B, and placed the spacecraft in an orbit 680 meters (2,231 feet) above the surface of asteroid Bennu. The previous record—also set by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft—was approximately 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles) above the surface.

Upon arrival at Bennu, the team observed particles ejecting into space from the asteroid’s surface. To better understand why this is occurring, the first two weeks of Orbital B will be devoted to observing these events by taking frequent images of the asteroid’s horizon. For the remaining five weeks, the spacecraft will map the entire asteroid using most of its onboard science instruments: the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) will produce a full terrain map; PolyCam will form a high-resolution, global image mosaic; and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) and the REgolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) will produce global maps in the infrared and X-ray bands. All of these measurements are essential for selecting the best sample collection site on Bennu’s surface.

OSIRIS-REx will remain in Orbital B until the second week of August, when it will transition to the slightly higher Orbital C for additional particle observations. During Orbital C, the spacecraft will be approximately 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles) above the asteroid’s surface.

The OSIRIS-REx team will also use data collected from Orbital B phase to assess the safety and sample-ability (the likelihood that a sample can be collected) of each potential sample collection site. The team will then choose four possible sample sites to be thoroughly evaluated this fall during the Reconnaissance phase of the mission. Data from the Reconnaissance phase will be used to evaluate the candidate sites for further down-selection, as well as provide the closeup imaging required to map the features and landmarks necessary for the spacecraft’s autonomous navigation to the asteroid’s surface.

Several safety requirements must be considered before sample collection. For instance, any candidate site must be clear enough of large rocks or boulders so that the spacecraft can navigate to the surface without encountering dangerous terrain. Additionally, to keep OSIRIS-REx upright during sample collection, the chosen site can’t be tilted too much compared to the sampling arm. Bennu’s unexpectedly rocky surface has made it more challenging than originally predicted to identify sites that meet both of these safety requirements. In response, the team is evaluating both spacecraft and navigation performance capabilities, which will likely enable greater precision guidance to target more confined sites.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is on a seven-year journey to study the asteroid Bennu and return a sample from its surface to Earth. This sample of a primitive asteroid will help scientists understand the formation of the Solar System over 4.5 billion years ago. Sample collection is scheduled for summer of 2020, and the spacecraft will deliver the sample to Earth in September 2023.

NASA Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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Opterus Research and Development, Inc. of Loveland, Colorado, a current Catalyst Space Accelerator participant, creates and manufactures critical components for spacecraft structures, some of which were successfully flown on eight space units in 2018.

June 15, 2019 – Catalyst Space Accelerator is proud to announce that one of their current cohort companies has received a $250,000 grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) Advanced Industries Accelerator (AIA) Grant Program.

Opterus Research and Development, Inc. is a current participant in the Catalyst Space Accelerator Resilient Commercial Space Communication Cohort, now in session at the Catalyst Campus in Colorado Springs. Headquartered in Loveland, Colorado, Opterus creates and manufactures critical components for spacecraft structures, some of which were successfully flown on eight space units in 2018. Opterus provides complete coverage from initial sketch to engineering design and simulation, prototyping and manufacturing, through testing and flight delivery.

Opterus’ proposal to OEDIT consisted of a co-funded program to enhance flight hardware manufacturing capabilities with equipment upgrades and process improvements. As a result, the company has been awarded a two-year Early Stage Capital and Retention Grant to execute the program. Grant funds will advance Opterus’ deployable antenna commercialization programs.

“The funding will prove vital to achieving our most ambitious technology development goals,” said Thomas Murphey, Opterus’s Chief Executive Officer. “Best of all, we’re thrilled to see the State of Colorado demonstrating so much confidence in our efforts and progress.”

As stated on the OEDIT website regarding Opterus, “The Aerospace Industry is shifting towards smaller satellites to reduce launch costs, driving the use of more on orbit deployment technologies to expand solar arrays, RF antennas, sails, etc. This great challenge is also an opportunity: High Strain Composites from Opterus expand by over 200x and are more reliable and lower cost than competing technologies. HSCs are stiff, yet flexible materials revolutionizing the Aerospace Industry by replacing traditional mechanisms.”

Catalyst Space Accelerator is thrilled that another participating company has received a significant monetary award to further their research. To date, since the inception of the inaugural cohort in early 2018, cohort alumni have won a total of ten Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, an OEDIT Advanced Industries Accelerator grant in the same round as Opterus, and two alumni have won or become a subcontractor to very large contracts, one from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and one from NASA.

For more information on joining upcoming Catalyst Space Accelerator cohorts, visit https://catalystaccelerator.space/#program.

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July 14, 2019 – The success of the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969 made possible our adventures in space today and laid a foundation for future achievements in space. The Space Foundation Discovery Center in Colorado Springs is celebrating the Apollo 11 Moon landing with a spectacular family event on July 20, made possible by premier sponsor Raytheon.

The day will begin with “Breakfast with an Astronaut,” featuring former NASA astronaut Duane “Digger” Carey, who will share an inspiring story of his journey to space.

Other activities will include:

  • Building rockets
  • United States Air Force Academy presents engineering the chemistry of rockets
  • United States Postal Service one-of-a-kind Apollo 11 postmark celebration and unveiling of new First Moon Landing stamp
  • Apollo virtual reality
  • Science On a Sphere® presentations
  • Drive a Rover in our Mars Robotics Laboratory
  • Astronaut obstacle course
  • Space face painting presented by Magic by Larry Scott
  • Food trucks

See a list of all the day’s activities and register for discounted tickets now here. Admission will also include access to the Discovery Center’s Summer of Discovery exhibit “Build!”

Located at 4425 Arrowswest Drive in Colorado Springs, the Space Foundation Discovery Center is the region’s only space, science and technology attraction. The Discovery Center is open to the public 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

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Image Credit: NASA

June 14, 2019 – Astronauts inside NASA’s Orion spacecraft will soar toward the Moon atop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket as part of the agency’s Artemis program to establish a permanent presence at the Moon and learn the skills needed to send humans to Mars. Crew members will journey aboard Orion with the confidence knowing the spacecraft is specifically designed with a number of features to support humans traveling to deep space, including a highly capable Launch Abort System (LAS). The LAS is a structure on top of the crew module that can fire within milliseconds and, with the crew module attached, outrun the powerful rocket if an emergency arises during launch.

Orion’s tower-like abort structure is specifically built for deep space missions and to ride on a high-powered rocket. It is positioned with motors on top of the Orion crew module and designed to pull the crew module away from a rocket, rather than push it away with motors at the base, as some spacecraft designed for other destinations are built to do.  This design offers several benefits for missions to the Moon and beyond.

“One of the biggest factors in designing a system to go to the Moon is minimizing the mass you have to take with you,” said Chuck Dingell, chief engineer for Orion, who also was involved in early studies that examined Orion launch abort system options. “Orion’s Launch Abort System is on top of the spacecraft, which helps to minimize the mass and thus maximize performance in two ways. It allows us to minimize the mass that aborts in an emergency by leaving the service module behind, and also frees us from carrying unwanted mass on our missions near the Moon by jettisoning the entire LAS when we know we’re safely on our way to space.”

The LAS consists of two parts: the fairing assembly, which is a shell composed of a lightweight composite material that protects the capsule from the heat, air flow and acoustics of the launch, ascent, and abort environments; and the launch abort tower, which includes the abort motor, attitude control motor, and jettison motor. Fully jettisoning the entire LAS once it’s no longer needed will free Orion of thousands of pounds that will make it lighter for its trips near the Moon.

The Orion launch abort system also offers the highest thrust and acceleration escape system ever tested. Orion’s puller-style system with the tower above the spacecraft allows for considerable control as well, enabling the LAS to move quickly and away from the 8.8 million pounds of thrust from the SLS rocket during an abort. It is the first puller system capable of controlled orientation after separating from the rocket.

“In an abort scenario, the Launch Abort System and crew module essentially become its own aircraft,” said Dingell. “Not only do we want to get that craft away from a dangerous scenario quickly, but we also want to control it so that it flies in a direction as far as possible from the rocket. It’s also easier to control a vehicle with a forward center of gravity and that is heavier on the front end.”

The abort motor quickly pulls the crew module away from danger and the attitude control motor and computer sense the position of the elements that abort and orient them to fly an optimized trajectory. Orion’s LAS contains the first solid rocket motor designed to vector, steer and control a spacecraft.

The LAS abort motor that pulls the crew module away from an emergency includes reverse-flow nozzles. This allows the nozzles to be located at the top of the motor rather than at the bottom, spacing the nozzles away from the crew module without the need for additional structures.

Engineers are preparing to test the abort system under high-stress conditions in July 2019. The upcoming test, called Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2), will demonstrate that the LAS can safely separate and maneuver the crew module away from the rocket in an emergency during the most stressful aerodynamic conditions a spacecraft can experience on its trip to space. During that test, a booster will launch and carry the capsule almost six miles high while traveling about 1,000 mph and then fire its motor with 400,000 pounds of thrust to quickly escape the booster.

Orion’s carefully designed LAS and the upcoming test are helping make sure Orion is safe for human missions to deep space and can reliably carry astronauts to the Moon and beyond. Orion is part of NASA’s backbone for deep space exploration that will land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024, along with SLS and the Gateway. Through the Artemis program, the next American Moon walkers will depart Earth aboard Orion and begin a new era of exploration.

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This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in front of an infrared image of the Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

June 14, 2019 – After nearly 16 years of exploring the cosmos in infrared light, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope will be switched off permanently on January 30, 2020. By then, the spacecraft will have operated for more than 11 years beyond its prime mission, thanks to the Spitzer engineering team’s ability to address unique challenges as the telescope slips farther and farther from Earth.

Managed and operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Spitzer is a small but transformational observatory. It captures infrared light, which is often emitted by “warm” objects that aren’t quite hot enough to radiate visible light. Spitzer has lifted the veil on hidden objects in nearly every corner of the universe, from a new ring around Saturn to observations of some of the most distant galaxies known. It has spied stars in every stage of life, mapped our home galaxy, captured gorgeous images of nebulas and probed newly discovered planets orbiting distant stars.

But as Spitzer’s deputy mission manager, Joseph Hunt, said, “You can have a world-class spacecraft, but it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t get the data back home.”

Spitzer orbits the Sun on a path similar to Earth’s but moves slightly slower. Today it trails about 158 million miles (254 million kilometers) behind our planet – more than 600 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. That distance, along with the curve of Spitzer’s orbit, means that when the spacecraft points its fixed antenna at Earth to download data or receive commands, its solar panels tilt away from the Sun. During those periods, the spacecraft must rely on a combination of solar power and battery power to operate.

The angle at which the panels point away from the Sun has increased every year that the mission has been operating. These days, to communicate with Earth, Spitzer has to position its panels at a 53-degree angle away from the Sun (90 degrees would be fully facing away), even though the mission planners never intended for it to tilt more than 30 degrees from the Sun. Spitzer can communicate with Earth for about 2.5 hours before it has to turn its solar panels back toward the Sun to recharge its batteries. That communications window would grow shorter year after year if Spitzer continued operating, which means there is a limit to how long it would be possible to operate the spacecraft efficiently.

An Enduring Effort

Teaching the spacecraft to accept new conditions – such as the increasing angle of the solar panels during communications with Earth – isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. There are multiple ways these changes could trigger safety mechanisms in the spacecraft’s flight software. For instance, if the panels tilted more than 30 degrees from the Sun during the mission’s early years, the software would have hit “pause,” putting the spacecraft into “safe mode” until the mission team could figure out what was wrong. The changing angle of Spitzer to the Sun could also trigger safety mechanisms intended to prevent spacecraft parts from overheating.

Entering safe mode can be particularly hazardous for the spacecraft, both because of its growing distance from Earth (which makes communicating more difficult) and because the aging onboard systems might not restart once they shut off.

To deal with these challenges, the project engineers and scientists at JPL and Caltech have worked with the observatory engineering team at Lockheed Martin Space’s Littleton, Colorado, facility to find a path forward. (Lockheed Martin built the Spitzer spacecraft for NASA.) Bolinda Kahr, Spitzer’s mission manager, leads this multi-center team. Over the years she and her colleagues have successfully figured out how to override safety mechanisms designed for the prime mission while also making sure that such alterations don’t introduce other unwanted side effects.

Members of the Spitzer engineering team pose in the mission support area. Front row (left to right): Natalie Martinez-Vlashoff, Jose Macias, Lisa Storrie-Lombardi, Amanda Kniepkamp, Bolinda Kahr, Mariah Woody, Socorro Rangel, May Tran. Middle: Pedro Diaz-Rubin, Joseph Hunt, John Ibanez, Laura Su, Nari Hwangpo. Back row: Michael Diaz, Adam Harbison, Richard Springer, Joe Stuesser, Ken Stowers, Dave Bliss. Not pictured: Bob Lineaweaver, Jason Hitz and Walt Hoffman. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But as Spitzer ages and gets farther from Earth, the challenge of keeping the spacecraft operating and the risk that it will suffer a major anomaly are only increasing.

“I can genuinely say that no one involved in the mission planning thought we’d be running in 2019,” said Lisa Storrie-Lombardi, Spitzer’s project manager. “But we have an incredibly robust spacecraft and an incredible team. And we’ve been lucky. You have to have some luck, because you can’t anticipate everything.”

Keeping Cool

Most infrared detectors have to be cooled to very low temperatures, because excess infrared light from “warm” objects – including the Sun, Earth, the spacecraft and even the instruments themselves – can overwhelm the infrared sensors. This cooling is typically done with a chemical coolant.

The Spitzer planners instead came up with a passive-cooling system that included flying the spacecraft far from Earth (a major infrared heat source). They also chose materials for the spacecraft exterior that would both reflect sunlight away before it could heat the telescope and radiate absorbed heat back into space. In this configuration, coolant is required only to lower the instrument temperatures a few degrees further. Reducing the onboard coolant supply also drastically allowed the engineers to cut the total size of the spacecraft by more than 80% and helped curtail the anticipated mission budget by more than 75%.

Although Spitzer’s coolant supply ran out in 2009, rendering two of its three instruments unusable, the team was able to keep half of the remaining instrument operating. (The instrument was designed to detect four wavelengths of infrared light; in the “warm” mode, it can still detect two of them.)

Lasting more than twice as long as the primary mission, Spitzer’s extended mission has yielded some of the observatory’s most transformational results. In 2017, the telescope revealed the presence of seven rocky planets around the TRAPPIST-1 star. In many cases, Spitzer’s exoplanet observations were combined with observations by other missions, including NASA’s Kepler and Hubble space telescopes.

Spitzer’s final year and a half of science operations include a number of exoplanet-related investigations. One program will investigate 15 dwarf stars (similar to the TRAPPIST-1 star) likely to host exoplanets. An additional 650 hours are dedicated to follow-up observations of planets discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched just over a year ago.

Final Voyage

Every mission must end at some point. As the challenges associated with operating Spitzer continue to grow and as the risk of a mission-ending anomaly on the spacecraft rises, NASA has made the decision to close out the mission in a controlled manner.

“There have been times when the Spitzer mission could have ended in a way we didn’t plan for,” said Kahr. “I’m glad that in January we’ll be able to retire the spacecraft deliberately, the way we want to do it.”

While Spitzer’s mission is ending, it has helped set the stage for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2021, which will study the universe in many of the same wavelengths observed by Spitzer. Webb’s primary mirror is about 7.5 times larger than Spitzer’s mirror, meaning Webb will be able to study many of the same targets in much higher resolution and objects much farther away from Earth than what Spitzer can observe.

Thirteen science programs have already been selected for Webb’s first five months of operations, four of which build directly on Spitzer observations. Webb will greatly expand on the legacy begun by Spitzer and answer questions that Spitzer has only begun to investigate.

JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena. Space operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at IPAC at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

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