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Solar Probe Plus Will ‘Touch’ The Sun

March 30th, 2017

Coronal Mass Ejections (aka. solar flares) are a seriously hazardous thing. Whenever the Sun emits a burst of these charged particles, it can play havoc with electrical systems, aircraft and satellites here on Earth. Worse yet is the harm it can inflict on astronauts stationed aboard the ISS, who do not have the protection of Earth’s magnetic field. As such, it is obvious why scientists want to be able to predict these events better.

For this reason, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory – a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based non-profit engineering organization – are working to develop specialized sensors for NASA’s proposed solar spacecraft. Launching in 2018, this spacecraft will fly into the Sun atmosphere and “touch” the face of the Sun to learn more about its behavior.

This spacecraft – known as the Solar Probe Plus (SPP) – is currently being designed and built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Once it is launched, the SPP will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the Sun. During this time, it will conduct 24 flybys of the Sun and pass into the Sun’s upper atmosphere (corona), passing within 6.4 million km (4 million mi) of its surface.

At this distance, it will have traveled 37.6 million km (23.36 million mi) closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history. At the same time, it will set a new record for the fastest moving object ever built by human beings – traveling at speeds of up to 200 km/sec (124.27 mi/s). And last but not least, it will exposed to heat and radiation that no spacecraft has ever faced, which will include temperatures in excess of 1371 °C (2500 °F).

As Seamus Tuohy, the Director of the Space Systems Program Office at Draper, said in a CfA press release:

“Such a mission would require a spacecraft and instrumentation capable of withstanding extremes of radiation, high velocity travel and the harsh solar condition—and that is the kind of program deeply familiar to Draper and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.”

In addition to being an historic first, this probe will provide new data on solar activity and help scientists develop ways of forecasting major space-weather events – which impact life on Earth. This is especially important in an age when people are increasingly reliant on technology that can be negatively impacted by solar flares – ranging from aircraft and satellites to appliances and electrical devices.

 According to a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, it is estimated that a huge solar event today could cause two trillion dollars in damage in the US alone – and places like the eastern seaboard would be without power for up to a year. Without electricity to provide heating, utilities, light, and air-conditioning, the death toll from such an event would be significant.

As such, developing advanced warning systems that could reliably predict when a coronal mass ejection is coming is not just a matter of preventing damage, but saving lives. As Justin C. Kasper, the principal investigator at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and a professor in space science at the University of Michigan, said:

“[I]n addition to answering fundamental science questions, the intent is to better understand the risks space weather poses to the modern communication, aviation and energy systems we all rely on. Many of the systems we in the modern world rely on—our telecommunications, GPS, satellites and power grids—could be disrupted for an extended period of time if a large solar storm were to happen today. Solar Probe Plus will help us predict and manage the impact of space weather on society.”

To this end, the SPP has three major scientific objectives. First, it will seek to trace the flow of energy that heats and accelerates the solar corona and solar wind. Second, its investigators will attempt to determine the structure and dynamics of plasma and magnetic fields as the source of solar wind. And last, it will explore the mechanisms that accelerate and transport energetic particles – specifically electrons, protons, and helium ions.

To do this, the SPP will be equipped with an advanced suite of instruments. One of the most important of these is the one built by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory with technical support from Draper. Known as the Faraday Cup – and named after famous electromagnetic scientists Michael Faraday – this device will be operated by SAO and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Designed to withstand interference from electromagnetic radiation, the Farady Cup will measure the velocity and direction of the Sun’s charged particles, and will be only two positioned outside of the SPP’s protective sun shield – another crucial component. Measuring 11.43 cm (4.5 inches) thick, this carbon composition shield will ensure that the probe can withstand the extreme conditions as it conducts its many flybys through the Sun’s corona.

Naturally, the mission presents several challenges, not the least of which will be capturing data while operating within an extreme environment, and while traveling at extreme speeds. But the payoff is sure to be worth it. For years, astronomers have studied the Sun, but never from inside the Sun’s atmosphere.

By flying through the birthplace of the highest-energy solar particles, the SPP is set to advance our understanding of the Sun and the origin and evolution of the solar wind. This knowledge could not only help us avoid a natural catastrophe here on Earth, but help advance our long-term goal of exploring (and even colonizing) the Solar System.

Further Reading: CfA

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The Ever-Working Mars Orbiter Passes 50,000 Orbits

March 30th, 2017

Most of us never do one thing 50,000 times in our life. So for NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), completing 50,000 orbits around the red planet is a big deal. And, it only took 10 years to do so.

The MRO could be called one of NASA’s flagship missions. It’s presence in orbit around Mars has helped open up our understanding of that planet immensely. And it’s done so while providing us a steady stream of eye candy.

This recent image from MRO’s HiRise camera shows dune structure inside an impact crater. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

MRO was launched in 2005 and reached Mars orbit in March, 2006. After 10 years at work, it has accomplished a lot. In a recent press release, NASA calls the MRO “the most data-productive spacecraft yet.” Though most of us might know the orbiter because of it’s camera, the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise), the MRO actually has a handful of other instruments that help the orbiter achieve its objectives. In broad terms, those objectives are:

  • to study the history of water on Mars
  • to look at small scale features on the surface, and identify landing sites for future Mars missions
  • to act as a communications relay between Mars and Earth

MRO investigating Martian water cycle – This artist’s concept represents the “Follow the Water” theme of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission. The orbiter’s science instruments monitor the present water cycle in the Mars atmosphere and the associated deposition and sublimation of water ice on the surface, while probing the subsurface to see how deep the water-ice reservoir extends. Image: By NASA/JPL/Corby Waste – http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA07241 (image link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=374810 (Larger image here.

MRO’s HiRise camera gets all the glory, but it’s another onboard camera, the Context Camera (CTX), that is the real workhorse. The CTX is a much lower resolution than the HiRise, but its file sizes are much more manageable, an important consideration when every file has to travel from Mars to Earth—an average distance of about 225 million km.

CTX has captured 90,000 images so far in MRO’s mission, and each one captures details smaller than a tennis court. In the course of the mission so far, CTX has images that cover 99.1% of the Martian surface. Over 60% of the planet has been covered twice.

“Reaching 99.1-percent coverage has been tricky…” – Context Camera Team Leader Michael Malin

“Reaching 99.1-percent coverage has been tricky because a number of factors, including weather conditions, coordination with other instruments, downlink limitations, and orbital constraints, tend to limit where we can image and when,” said Context Camera Team Leader Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego.

Malin said, “Single coverage provides a baseline we can use for comparison with future observations, as we look for changes. Re-imaging areas serves two functions: looking for changes and acquiring stereoscopic views from which we can make topographic maps.”

Because the CTX captures image of the same surface areas twice, it documents changes on the surface. There have been over 200 instances of impact craters appearing in a second image of the same area. Scientists have used this to calculate the rate that meteorites impact Mars.

The instruments on board the MRO work as a team. The CTX can capture images of areas of interest, and the HiRise can be used for higher-resolution images of the same area. By locating fresh impact craters, then studying them more closely, the MRO has helped discover the presence of what looked like sub-surface ice on Mars. A third instrument, the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), confirmed the presence of ice.

The CTX is the workhorse camera, and the HiRise is the diva, but MRO actually has a third camera: the Mars Color Imager (MARCI). MARCI is a very low resolution camera compared to the others. It’s also a wide-angle camera with really only one purpose: characterizing Martian weather. Every day, MARCI takes about 84 images which together create a daily global map of Mars. You can see a weekly Martian weather report from MARCI here.

The MRO recently manoeuvered itself into position for its next task—helping the InSight Lander. The MRO must receive critical radio transmissions from NASA’s InSight Lander as it descends to Mars. Insight will use its instruments to examine the interior of Mars for clues to how rocky planets form. Not only did MRO help find a landing spot for Insight, but it will hold the lander’s hand as it descends, and it will act as a data relay.

“After 11 and a half years in flight, the spacecraft is healthy and remains fully functional.” – MRO Project Manager Dan Johnston.

There’s no end in sight for the MRO. It just keeps going and going, and fulfilling its mission objectives on a continuing basis. “After 11 and a half years in flight, the spacecraft is healthy and remains fully functional,” said MRO Project Manager Dan Johnston at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “It’s a marvelous vehicle that we expect will serve the Mars Exploration Program and Mars science for many more years to come.”

The post The Ever-Working Mars Orbiter Passes 50,000 Orbits appeared first on Universe Today.



SpaceX Attempting Launch of 1st Orbit Class Recycled Rocket March 30 – Watch Live

March 30th, 2017

SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket carrying SES-10 telecomsat raised erect atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center as seen from inside the pad ahead of liftoff slated for 6:27 p.m on 30 Mar 2017 on world’s first reflight of an orbit class rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The moment of truth is rapidly approaching as SpaceX attempts the world’s first reflight of an orbital class rocket later today, Thursday, March 30, with the firms Falcon 9 standing proudly at historic launch complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida – ready to deliver an advanced TV broadcast satellite to orbit for the America’s for telecom giant SES.

If successful, the launch will mightily advance billionaire SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s bold vision to slash launch costs by recovering and reusing spent first stage rockets from his firms Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

“The SES-10 mission will mark a historic milestone on the road to full and rapid reusability,” say Space officials.

“We are confident in this booster,” SES CTO Martin Halliwell told Universe Today at a press briefing on March 28.

SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket carrying SES-10 telecomsat poised atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center ahead of liftoff slated for 6:27 p.m. on 30 Mar 2017 on world’s first reflight of an orbit class rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The milestone SpaceX mission destined to refly the first ever ‘used rocket’ is slated for lift off on Thursday, March 30, at 6:27 p.m. EDT carrying the SES-10 telecommunications payload to orbit atop a ‘Flight-Proven’ Falcon 9 rocket from seaside Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

So, if you want to witness this truly magnificent event in space history with your own eyes, there’s only a few hours left for you to ‘Get Your Ass to KSC!’ to paraphrase Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.

The nearly six ton SES-10 satellite will provide significantly improved TV, voice, data and maratime service to over 37 million customers across Central and South America.

Eventually, Musk hopes to help establish a ‘City on Mars’ by building Interplanetary Colonial Transporters to transport human settlers to live on the Red Planet – the most Earth-like world in our Solar System.

You can watch the launch live on a SpaceX dedicated webcast starting about 20 minutes prior to the 6:27 pm EDT or 10:27 pm UTC liftoff time.

The two and a half hour launch window closes at 9:57 p.m. EDT.

Watch the SpaceX broadcast live at: SpaceX.com/webcast

The weather outlook is glorious along the Florida Space Coast with an 80% chance of favorable conditions at launch time in the latest AF prognosis.

However for the back-up launch date on Friday, the outlook worsens considerable to only 40% favorable.

“This thing is good to go!” Halliwell told me.

The SES-10 satellite was manufactured by Airbus Defence & Space and is based on the Eurostar E3000 platform. It will operate in geostationary orbit.Credit: SES/Airbus

The Falcon 9 booster to be recycled was initially launched in April 2016 for NASA on the SpaceX Dragon CRS-8 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) under contract for the space agency.

The 156 foot tall first stage was recovered about eight and a half minutes after liftoff via a pinpoint propulsive soft landing on an tiny ocean going droneship prepositioned in the Atlantic Ocean some 400 miles (600 km) off the US East coast.

If all goes well SpaceX will also attempt to re-land the Falcon 9 first stage on an oceangoing barge for an unprecedented second time, provided there are sufficient fuel reserves remaining after accomplishing its primary mission of delivering SES-10 to GTO, Halliwell stated.

The SES-10 launch comes barely 2 weeks after the prior SpaceX launch of EchoStar XXIII on March 16.

SpaceX, founded by billionaire and CEO Elon Musk, inked a deal in August 2016 with telecommunications giant SES, to refly a ‘Flight-Proven’ Falcon 9 booster.

Luxembourg-based SES and Hawthrone, CA-based SpaceX jointly announced the agreement to “launch SES-10 on a flight-proven Falcon 9 orbital rocket booster.”

The flight proven SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will deliver SES-10 to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).

SES-10 has a launch mass of 5,300 kg or 11,700 pounds, which includes the dry mass and propellant.

The spacecraft utilizes for both chemical propulsion for orbit raising and electric propulsion for station keeping.

SES-10 will replace AMC-3 and AMC-4 to provide enhanced coverage and significant capacity expansion over Latin America, says SES.

“The satellite will be positioned at 67 degrees West, pursuant to an agreement with the Andean Community (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru), and will be used for the Simón Bolivar 2 satellite network.”

Up to 3 additional SES satellites could launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets by the end of this year.

Watch for Kens’ continuing coverage direct from onsite at the Kennedy Space Center press site and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SpaceX SES-10, EchoStar 23 and CRS-10 launches to ISS, ULA SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R launch, Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, OSIRIS-REx, InSight Mars lander, Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX AMOS-6, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Mar 31, Apr 1: “SpaceX SES-10, EchoStar 23, CRS-10 launch to ISS, ULA Atlas SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions to the ISS, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

SES CTO Martin Halliway discusses the planned SES-10 telecomsat launch on March 30, 2017 on first ‘flight-proven’ SpaceX Falcon 9 from pad 39A on the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Historic maiden blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center) at 9:38 a.m. EDT on Feb 19, 2017, on Dragon CRS-10 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The post SpaceX Attempting Launch of 1st Orbit Class Recycled Rocket March 30 – Watch Live appeared first on Universe Today.



SES ComSat Boss Proclaims High ‘Confidence’ in SpaceX’s Bold 1st ‘Flight-Proven’ Rocket Launch – March 30

March 30th, 2017

The SES-10 satellite was manufactured by Airbus Defence & Space and is based on the Eurostar E3000 platform. It will operate in geostationary orbit. Credit: SES/Airbus

CAPE CANAVERAL/KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – As the hours tick down to the history making liftoff of the world’s first recycled rocket, the commercial customer SES is proclaiming high “confidence” in the flight worthiness of the “Flight-Proven” SpaceX Falcon 9 booster that will blastoff with a massive Hi-Def TV satellite for telecom giant SES this Thursday, Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell told Universe Today at a media briefing.

“We are confident in this booster,” SES CTO Martin Halliwell told me at a press briefing on March 28, regarding SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s bold vision to slash launch costs by recovering and reusing spent first stage rockets from his firms Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

The milestone SpaceX mission destined to refly the first ever ‘used rocket’ is slated for lift off on Thursday, March 30, at 6:27 p.m. EDT carrying the SES-10 telecommunications payload to orbit atop a ‘Flight-Proven’ Falcon 9 rocket from seaside Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SES-10 is to be the first ever satellite launching on such a SpaceX flight-proven first stage rocket, Halliwell explained.

The Falcon 9 was designed from the start of development by SpaceX engineers to be reusable.

The nearly six ton satellite will provide significantly improved TV, voice and data service to over 37 million customers in Central and South America.

“This thing is good to go!”

The Falcon 9 booster to be recycled was initially launched in April 2016 for NASA on the SpaceX Dragon CRS-8 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) under contract for the space agency.

Sunset blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying SES-9 communications satellite from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 156 foot tall first stage was recovered about eight and a half minutes after liftoff via a pinpoint propulsive soft landing on an tiny ocean going droneship prepositioned in the Atlantic Ocean some 400 miles (600 km) off the US East coast.

The SES-10 launch comes barely 2 weeks after the prior SpaceX launch of EchoStar XXIII on March 16.

It also marks the final round of March Launch Madness. Concldung the third and final round of launches this month.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 from Thaicom-8 mission after craning off ‘OCISLY’ droneship to ground processing cradle at Port Canaveral, FL. Workers had removed the first of four landing legs in this view from June 3, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The booster is one of eight first stages recovered by SpaceX so far, either by landing on a barge at sea or on a landing pad on the ground.

“We [SES] have been through this vehicle with a fine tooth comb,” Halliwell elaborated.

The boosters are carefully checked and refurbished to confirm their integrity and utility, and the first stage Merlin 1D engines are re-fired multiple times to confirm they will function reliably and robustly.

“SpaceX has been through this booster with a fine tooth comb. This booster is a really good booster.”
Is this a high risk strategy to be first in line launching an expensive satellite on a used rocket, I asked? Why are you confident?

“There is not a huge risk,” Halliwell stated emphatically. “In this particular case we know that the reusability capability is built into the design of the Falcon 9 vehicle. I think its baseline is to fly nine times. We are flight #2.’

“We have tested this thing. We have run the engines up! Halliwell elaborated.

SpaceX has run full duration static fire tests as well as shorter 3 to 5 second hold down tests on the pad.

Indeed this booster was successfully checked out during a brief engine test lasting approximately five seconds at 2 p.m. today, Monday March 27, with the sudden eruption of smoke and ash rushing into the air over historic pad 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during a picture perfect sunny afternoon – as I witnessed from Space View Park in Titusville, FL.

SpaceX conducts successful static hot fire test of 1st previously flown Falcon 9 booster atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 27 Mar. 2017 as seen from Space View Park, Titusville, FL. History making launch of first recycled rocket is slated for 30 March 2017 with SES-10 telecommunications comsat. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

“We have also looked at the airframe, Halliwell went on. “We have looked at the various components. This thing is good to go.”

“We don’t believe we are taking an inordinate risk here.”

SpaceX says the cost of a Falcon 9 launch is about $60 million.

Halliwell would not disclose the discount SES is receiving for this launch by utilizing a recycled rocket. But SpaceX officials have been quoted as saying the savings could be between 10 to 30 percent.

“So with that we can go back to our insurers and we can explain that risk exactly. And we can back it up with analysis and test data. So I don’t agree that we are taking a huge risk here!” Halliwell told me.

“From a pricing point of view, the launch cost pricing is really irrelevant. The delta in cost is really not relevant or material.”

The payload was encapsulated inside the payload fairing and bolted on top of the Falcon 9. It will be rolled back out to pad 39A overnight Thursday morning and erected.

13 hours of critical checks are needed to insure the satellite is still functioning perfectly after raising at the pad, Halliwell explained. The timeline is tight to get all the required work done in time to carry out a Thursday evening launch.

Historic maiden blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center) at 9:38 a.m. EDT on Feb 19, 2017, on Dragon CRS-10 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX, founded by billionaire and CEO Elon Musk, inked a deal in August 2016 with telecommunications giant SES, to refly a ‘Flight-Proven’ Falcon 9 booster.

Luxembourg-based SES and Hawthrone, CA-based SpaceX jointly announced the agreement to “launch SES-10 on a flight-proven Falcon 9 orbital rocket booster.”

The flight proven SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will deliver SES-10 to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).

SES-10 has a launch mass of 5,300 kg or 11,700 pounds, which includes the dry mass and propellant.

The spacecraft utilizes for both chemical propulsion for orbit raising and electric propulsion for station keeping.

Liftoff of the Falcon 9 carrying the SES-10 telecommunications satellite is now slated for 6:27 p.m. EDT at the opening of the launch window

The two and a half hour launch window closes at 8:57 p.m. EDT.

SpaceX will webcast the launch live.

SpaceX will also attempt to re-land the Falcon 9 first stage for an unprecedented second time, provided there are sufficient fuel reserves remaining after accomplishing its primary mission to delivering SES-10 to GTO, Halliwell stated.

SES-10 will replace AMC-3 and AMC-4 to provide enhanced coverage and significant capacity expansion over Latin America, says SES.

“The satellite will be positioned at 67 degrees West, pursuant to an agreement with the Andean Community (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru), and will be used for the Simón Bolivar 2 satellite network.”

Up to 3 additional SES satellites could launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets by the end of this year.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer
………….

Learn more about SpaceX SES-10, EchoStar 23 and CRS-10 launches to ISS, ULA SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R launch, Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, OSIRIS-REx, InSight Mars lander, Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX AMOS-6, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Mar 31, Apr 1: “SpaceX SES-10, EchoStar 23, CRS-10 launch to ISS, ULA Atlas SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions to the ISS, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Video Caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 hot fire test on March 27, 2017 for SES-10 launch on March 30 on KSC Pad 39A. Credit: Jeff Seibert

The post SES ComSat Boss Proclaims High ‘Confidence’ in SpaceX’s Bold 1st ‘Flight-Proven’ Rocket Launch – March 30 appeared first on Universe Today.



Finite Light — Why We Always Look Back In Time

March 29th, 2017

Beads of rainwater on a poplar leaf act like lenses, focusing light and enlarging the leaf’s network of veins. Moving at 186,000 miles per second, light from the leaf arrives at your eye 0.5 nanosecond later. A blink of an eye takes 600,000 times as much time! Credit: Bob King

My attention was focused on beaded water on a poplar leaf. How gemmy and bursting with the morning’s sunlight. I moved closer, removed my glasses and noticed that each drop magnified a little patch of veins that thread and support the leaf.

Focusing the camera lens, I wondered how long it took the drops’ light to reach my eye. Since I was only about six inches away and light travels at 186,000 miles per second or 11.8 inches every billionth of a second (one nanosecond), the travel time amounted to 0.5 nanoseconds. Darn close to simultaneous by human standards but practically forever for positronium hydride, an exotic molecule made of a positron, electron and hydrogen atom. The average lifetime of a PsH molecule is just 0.5 nanoseconds.

Light takes about 35 microseconds to arrive from a transcontinental jet and its contrail. Credit: Bob King

In our everyday life, the light from familiar faces, roadside signs and the waiter whose attention you’re trying to get reaches our eyes in nanoseconds. But if you happen to look up to see the tiny dark shape of a high-flying airplane trailed by the plume of its contrail, the light takes about 35,000 nanoseconds or 35 microseconds to travel the distance. Still not much to piddle about.

The space station orbits the Earth in outer space some 250 miles overhead. During an overhead pass, light from the orbiting science lab fires up your retinas 1.3 milliseconds later. In comparison, a blink of the eye lasts about 300 milliseconds (1/3 of a second) or 230 times longer!

The Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment placed on the Moon by the Apollo 14 astronauts. Observatories beam a laser to the small array, which reflects a bit of the light back. Measuring the time delay yields the Moon’s distance to within about a millimeter. At the Moon’s surface the laser beam spreads out to 4 miles wide and only one photon is reflected back to the telescope every few seconds. Credit: NASA

Light time finally becomes more tangible when we look at the Moon, a wistful 1.3 light seconds away at its average distance of 240,000 miles. To feel how long this is, stare at the Moon at the next opportunity and count out loud: one one thousand one. Retroreflecting devices placed on the lunar surface by the Apollo astronauts are still used by astronomers to determine the moon’s precise distance. They beam a laser at the mirrors and time the round trip.

Venus as a super-thin crescent only 10 hours before conjunction on March 25. The planet was just 2.3 light minutes from the Earth at the time. Credit: Shahrin Ahmad

Of the eight planets, Venus comes closest to Earth, and it does so during inferior conjunction, which coincidentally occurred on March 25. On that date only 26.1 million miles separated the two planets, a distance amounting to 140 seconds or 2.3 minutes — about the time it takes to boil water for tea. Mars, another close-approaching planet, currently stands on nearly the opposite side of the Sun from Earth.

With a current distance of 205 million miles, a radio or TV signal, which are both forms of light, broadcast to the Red Planet would take 18.4 minutes to arrive. Now we can see why engineers pre-program a landing sequence into a Mars’ probe’s computer to safely land it on the planet’s surface. Any command – or change in commands – we might send from Earth would arrive too late. Once a lander settles on the planet and sends back telemetry to communicate its condition, mission control personnel must bite their fingernails for many minutes waiting for light to limp back and bring word.

Before we speed off to more distant planets, let’s consider what would happen if the Sun had a catastrophic malfunction and suddenly ceased to shine. No worries. At least not for 8.3 minutes, the time it takes for light, or the lack of it, to bring the bad news.

Pluto and Charon lie 3.1 billion miles from Earth, a long way for light to travel. We see them as they were more than 4 hours ago.  NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Light from Jupiter takes 37 minutes to reach Earth; Pluto and Charon are so remote that a signal from the “double planet” requires 4.6 hours to get here. That’s more than a half-day of work on the job, and we’ve only made it to the Kuiper Belt.

Let’s press on to the nearest star(s), the Alpha Centauri system. If 4.6 hours of light time seemed a long time to wait, how about 4.3 years? If you think hard, you might remember what you were up to just before New Year’s Eve in 2012. About that time, the light arriving tonight from Alpha Centauri left that star and began its earthward journey. To look at the star then is to peer back in time to late 2012.

The Summer Triangle rises fully in the eastern sky around 3 o’clock in the morning in late March. Created with Stellarium

But we barely scrape the surface. Let’s take the Summer Triangle, a figure that will soon come to dominate the eastern sky along with the beautiful summer Milky Way that appears to flow through it. Altair, the southernmost apex of the triangle is nearby, just 16.7 light years from Earth; Vega, the brightest a bit further at 25 and Deneb an incredible 3,200 light years away.

We can relate to the first two stars because the light we see on a given evening isn’t that “old.” Most of us can conjure up an image of our lives and the state of world affairs 16 and 25 years ago. But Deneb is exceptional. Photons departed this distant supergiant (3,200 light years) around the year 1200 B.C. during the Trojan War at the dawn of the Iron Age. That’s some look-back time!

Rho Cassiopeia, currently at magnitude +4.5, is one of the most distant stars visible with the naked eye. Its light requires about 8,200 years to reach our eyes. This star, a variable, is enormous with a radius about 450 times that of the Sun. Credit: IAU/Sky and Telescope (left); Anynobody, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia

One of the most distant naked eye stars is Rho Cassiopeiae, yellow variable some 450 times the size of the Sun located 8,200 light years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. Right now, the star is near maximum and easy to see at nightfall in the northwestern sky. Its light whisks us back to the end of the last great ice age at a time and the first cave drawings, more than 4,000 years before the first Egyptian pyramid would be built.

This is the digital message (annotated here) sent by Frank Drake to M13 in 1974 using the Arecibo radio telescope.

On and on it goes: the nearest large galaxy, Andromeda, lies 2.5 million light years from us and for many is the faintest, most distant object visible with the naked eye. To think that looking at the galaxy takes us back to the time our distant ancestors first used simple tools. Light may be the fastest thing in the universe, but these travel times hint at the true enormity of space.

Let’s go a little further. On November 16, 1974 a digital message was beamed from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to the rich star cluster M13 in Hercules 25,000 light years away. The message was created by Dr. Frank Drake, then professor of astronomy at Cornell, and contained basic information about humanity, including our numbering system, our location in the solar system and the composition of DNA, the molecule of life. It consisted of 1,679 binary bits representing ones and zeroes and was our first deliberate communication sent to extraterrestrials. Today the missive is 42 light years away, just barely out the door.

Galaxy GN-z11, shown in the inset, is seen as it was 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the big bang, when the universe was only three percent of its current age. The galaxy is ablaze with bright, young, blue stars, but looks red in this image because its light has been stretched to longer spectral wavelengths by the expansion of the universe. Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Oesch, G. Brammer, P. van Dokkum, and G. Illingworth

Let’s end our time machine travels with the most distant object we’ve seen in the universe, a galaxy named GN-z11 in Ursa Major. We see it as it was just 400 million years after the Big Bang (13.4 billion years ago) which translates to a proper distance from Earth of 32 billion light years. The light astronomers captured on their digital sensors left the object before there was an Earth, a Solar System or even a Milky Way galaxy!

Thanks to light’s finite speed we can’t help but always see things as they were. You might wonder if there’s any way to see something right now without waiting for the light to get here? There’s just one way, and that’s to be light itself.

From the perspective of a photon or light particle, which travels at the speed of light, distance and time completely fall away. Everything happens instantaneously and travel time to anywhere, everywhere is zero seconds. In essence, the whole universe becomes a point. Crazy and paradoxical as this sounds, the theory of relativity allows it because an object traveling at the speed of light experiences infinite time dilation and infinite space contraction.

Just something to think about the next time you meet another’s eyes in conversation. Or look up at the stars.

The post Finite Light — Why We Always Look Back In Time appeared first on Universe Today.



Watch Rotating Horns of Venus at Dawn

March 29th, 2017
Venus inferior conjunction

Venus just 10.5 hours before inferior conjunction on March 25th. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad (@Shahgazer)

Have you seen it yet? An old friend greeted us on an early morning run yesterday as we could easily spy brilliant Venus in the dawn, just three days after inferior conjunction this past Saturday on March 25th.

This was an especially wide pass, as the planet crossed just over eight degrees (that’s 16 Full Moon diameters!) north of the Sun. We once managed to see Venus with the unaided eye on the very day of inferior conjunction back in 1998 from the high northern latitudes of the Chena Flood Channel just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.

The planet was a slender 59.4” wide, 1% illuminated crescent during this past weekend’s passage, and the wide pass spurred many advanced imagers to hunt for the slim crescent in the daytime sky. Of course, such a feat is challenging near the dazzling daytime Sun. Safely blocking the Sun out of view and being able to precisely point your equipment is key in this endeavor. A deep blue, high contrast sky helps, as well. Still, many Universe Today readers rose to the challenge of chronicling the horns of the slender crescent Venus as they rotated ’round the limb and the nearby world moved once again from being a dusk to dawn object.

Venus rotating horns

A daily sequence showing the ‘Horns of Venus’ rotate as it approaches inferior conjunction. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad (@ShahGazer)

The orbit of Venus is tilted 3.4 degrees with respect to the Earth, otherwise, we’d get a transit of the planet like we did on June 5-6th, 2012 once about every 584 days, instead of having to wait again until next century on December 10th, 2117.

The joint NASA/European Space Agency’s SOlar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) mission also spied the planet this past weekend as it just grazed the 15 degree wide field of view of its Sun-observing LASCO C3 camera:

Venus SOHO

The glow of Venus (arrowed) just barely bleeding over into the field of view of SOHO’s LASCO C3 camera. Credit: SOHO/NASA/LASCO

Venus kicks off April as a 58” wide, 3% illuminated crescent and ends the month at 37” wide, fattening up to 28% illumination. On closest approach, the planet presents the largest apparent planetary disk possible as seen from the Earth. Can you see the horns? They’re readily readily apparent even in a low power pair of hunting binoculars. The coming week is a great time to try and see a crescent Venus… with the naked eye. Such an observation is notoriously difficult, and right on the edge of possibility for those with keen eyesight.

One problem for seasoned observers is that we know beforehand that (spoiler alert) that the Horns of Venus, like the Moon, always point away from the direction of the Sun.

True Story: a five year old girl at a public star party once asked me “why does that ‘star’ look like a tiny Moon” (!) This was prior to looking at the planet through a telescope. Children generally have sharper eyes than adults, as the lenses of our corneas wear down and yellow from ultraviolet light exposure over the years.

Still, there are tantalizing historical records that suggest that ancient cultures such as the Babylonians knew something of the true crescent nature of Venus in pre-telescopic times as well.

The Babylonian frieze of Kudurru Melishipak on display at the Louvre, depicting the Sun Moon and Venus. According to some interpretations, the goddess Ishtar (Venus) is also associated with a crescent symbol… possibly lending credence to the assertion that ancient Babylonian astronomers knew something of the phases of the planet from direct observation. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Image in the Public Domain.

Another fun challenge in the coming months is attempting to see Venus in the daytime. This is surprisingly easy, once you know exactly where to look for it. A nearby crescent Moon is handy, as occurs on April 23rd, May 22nd, and June 20th.

Daytime Venus

Venus (arrowed) near the daytime Moon. Photo by author.

Strangely enough, the Moon is actually darker than dazzling Venus in terms of surface albedo. The ghostly daytime Moon is just larger and easier to spot. Many historical ‘UFO’ sightings such as a ‘dazzling light seen near the daytime Moon’ by the startled residents of Saint-Denis, France on the morning on January 13th, 1589 were, in fact, said brilliant planet.

The Moon near Venus on May 22nd. Credit: Stellarium.

Venus can appear startlingly bright to even a seasoned observer. We’ve seen the planet rise as a shimmering ember against a deep dark twilight sky from high northern latitudes. Air traffic controllers have tried in vain to ‘hail’ Venus on more than one occasion, and India once nearly traded shots with China along its northern border in 2012, mistaking a bright conjunction of Jupiter and Venus for spy drones.

The third brightest object in the sky behind the Sun and the Moon, Venus is even bright enough to cast a shadow as seen from a dark sky site, something that can be more readily recorded photographically.

Watch our nearest planetary neighbor long enough, and it will nearly repeat the same pattern for a given apparition. This is known as the eight year cycle of Venus, and stems from the fact that 13 Venusian orbits (8x 224.8 days) very nearly equals eight Earth years.

Follow Venus through the dawn in 2017, and it will eventually form a right triangle with the Earth and the Sun on June 3rd, reaching what is known as greatest elongation. This can vary from 47.2 to 45.4 degrees from the Sun, and this year reaches 45.9 degrees elongation in June. The planet then reaches half phase known as dichotomy around this date, though observed versus theoretical dichotomy can vary by three days. The cause of this phenomenon is thought to be the refraction of light in Venus’ dense atmosphere, coupled with observer bias due to the brilliance of Venus itself. When do you see it?

Also, keep an eye out for the ghostly glow on the night-side of Venus, known as Ashen Light. Long thought to be another trick of the eye, there’s good evidence to suggest that this long reported effect actually has a physical basis, though Venus has no large reflecting moon nearby… how could this be? The leading candidate is now thought to be air-glow radiating from the cooling nighttime side of the planet.

Cloud enshrouded Venus held on to its secrets, right up until the Space Age less than a century ago… some observers theorized that the nighttime glow on Venus was due to aurorae, volcanoes or even light pollution from Venusian cities (!). This also fueled spurious sightings of the alleged Venusian moon Neith right up through the 19th century.

Venus should also put in a showing 34 degrees west of the Sun shining at magnitude -4 during the August 21st, 2017 total solar eclipse. Follow that planet, as it makes a complex meet up with Mars, Mercury, and the Moon in late September of this year.

More to come!

-Read about planets, occultations, comets and more for the year in our 101 Astronomical Events for 2017, out as a free e-book from Universe Today.

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Take a Peek Inside Blue Origin’s New Shepard Crew Capsule

March 29th, 2017

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos provided a sneak peek today into the interior of the New Shepard crew capsule, the suborbital vehicle for space tourism. He released a few images which illustrate what the flight experience might be like on board.

“Our New Shepard flight test program is focused on demonstrating the performance and robustness of the system,” Bezos said via an email release. “In parallel, we’ve been designing the capsule interior with an eye toward precision engineering, safety, and comfort.”

Take a look:

A view of the interior of the New Shepard crew capsule from Blue Origin. Credit: Blue Origin.

The interior has six seats with large windows for a great view of our planet.

“Every seat’s a window seat,” Bezos said.

What looks like a console in the center of the capsule is actually the escape motor to protect future passengers from any anomaly during launch. Unlike the Apollo escape system that used an escape “tower” motor located on top of the capsule to ‘pull’ the crew cabin away from a failing booster, New Shepard’s escape system is mounted underneath the capsule, to ‘push’ the capsule away from a potentially exploding booster. Blue Origin successfully tried out this escapes motor in October 2016 during an in-flight test.

Blue Origin touts the view from the New Shepard crew capsule as ‘the largest windows ever in space.’ Credit: Blue Origin.

Blue Origin’s suborbital rocket is named after Alan Shepard, the first NASA astronaut to take a suborbital trip to space in 1961. Their orbital rocket will be named New Glenn, named for John Glenn, the first American in orbit. Blue Origin is also developing a larger rocket to bring payloads beyond Earth orbit, and they’ve named that vehicle after Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon.

Blue Origin hasn’t released a timeline yet of when they will be flying their first paying passengers; all Bezos has said is that he hopes to fly as soon as possible.

The commercial company describes the experience this way:

Following a thrilling launch, you’ll soar over 100 km above Earth—beyond the internationally recognized edge of space. You’ll help extend the legacy of space explorers who have come before you, while pioneering access to the space frontier for all.

Sitting atop a 60-foot-tall rocket in a capsule designed for six people, you’ll feel the engine ignite and rumble under you as you climb through the atmosphere. Accelerating at more than 3 Gs to faster than Mach 3, you will count yourself as one of the few who have gone these speeds and crossed into space.

Blue Origin’s black feather logo on the New Shepard rocket is ‘a symbol of the perfection of flight,’ says founder Jeff Bezos. Credit: Blue Origin.

“We are building Blue Origin to seed an enduring human presence in space, to help us move beyond this blue planet that is the origin of all we know,” Bezos said in the press release after a successful test flight of the New Shepard rocket in 2015. “We are pursuing this vision patiently, step-by-step. Our fantastic team in Kent, Van Horn and Cape Canaveral is working hard not just to build space vehicles, but to bring closer the day when millions of people can live and work in space.”

Blue Origin’s black feather logo on the New Shepard rocket is ‘a symbol of the perfection of flight,’ says founder Jeff Bezos, and “flight with grace and power in its functionality and design.”

Their moto, “Gradatim Ferociter” is Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously.” Bezos has said that is how they are approaching their goals in spaceflight.

Find out more about the Blue Origin “Astronaut Experience” on their website.

If you’re lucky enough to be attending the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs April 3-6, 2017, you can see the New Shepard capsule for yourself. “The high-fidelity capsule mockup will be on display alongside the New Shepard reusable booster that flew to space and returned five times.” Bezos said.

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Successful HotFire Test Sets SpaceX on Course for Historic Relaunch of 1st ‘Flight-Proven’ Rocket

March 28th, 2017

SpaceX conducts successful static hot fire test of 1st previously flown Falcon 9 booster atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 27 Mar. 2017 as seen from Space View Park, Titusville, FL. History making launch of first recycled rocket is slated for 30 March 2017 with SES-10 telecommunications comsat. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

SPACE VIEW PARK/KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – This afternoons (Mar. 27) successful hotfire test of a recycled Falcon 9 booster at the Kennedy Space Center sets SpaceX on course for a rendezvous with history involving the first ever relaunch of a ‘Flight-Proven’ rocket later this week.

The milestone mission to refly the first ever ‘used rocket’ is slated for lift off on Thursday, March 30, at 6 p.m. EDT from seaside Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying the SES-10 telecommunications payload.

“Static fire test complete,” SpaceX confirmed via social media.

“Targeting Thursday, March 30 for Falcon 9 launch of SES-10.”

SES-10 is to be the first satellite launching on a SpaceX flight-proven rocket, gushes telecommunications giant SES.

The flight proven SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will deliver SES-10 to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).

The Falcon 9 booster to be recycled was initially launched in April 2016 for NASA on the SpaceX Dragon CRS-8 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) under contract for the space agency.

The Falcon 9 first stage was recovered about 8 and a half minutes after liftoff via a propulsive soft landing on an ocean going droneship in the Atlantic Ocean some 400 miles (600 km) off the US East coast.

The brief engine test lasting approximately three seconds took place at 2 p.m. today, Monday March 27, with the sudden eruption of smoke and ash rushing into the air over historic pad 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during a picture perfect sunny afternoon – as I witnessed from Space View Park in Titusville, FL.

During today’s static fire test, the rocket’s first and second stages are fueled with liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants like an actual launch, and a simulated countdown is carried out to the point of a brief engine ignition.

The hold down engine test with the erected rocket involved the ignition of all nine Merlin 1D first stage engines generating some 1.7 million pounds of thrust at pad 39A while the two stage rocket was restrained on the pad.

This is only the third Falcon 9 static fire test ever conducted on Pad 39A.

Pad 39A has been repurposed by SpaceX from its days as a NASA shuttle launch pad.

Watch this video of the March 27 static fire test from colleague Jeff Seibert:

Video Caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 hot fire test on March 27, 2017 for SES-10 launch on March 30 on KSC Pad 39A. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Space View Park is a great place to watch rocket launches from as it offers an unobstructed view across the inland river to the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch pads dotting the Florida Space Coast.

SpaceX, founded by billionaire and CEO Elon Musk, inked a deal in August 2016 with telecommunications giant SES, to refly a ‘Flight-Proven’ Falcon 9 booster.

Luxembourg-based SES and Hawthrone, CA-based SpaceX jointly announced the agreement to “launch SES-10 on a flight-proven Falcon 9 orbital rocket booster.”

Exactly how much money SES will save by utilizing a recycled rocket is not known. But SpaceX officials have been quoted as saying the savings could be between 10 to 30 percent.

This critical engine test opens the door to what will be only the third blastoff of the SpaceX commercial Falcon 9 rocket from seaside Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

So SpaceX is definitely picking up the pace of launch operations as this blastoff comes barely 2 weeks after the prior launch on March 16 with EchoStar XXIII.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 launches the EchoStar 23 telecomsat from historic Launch Complex 39A with countdown clock in foreground at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as display shows liftoff progress to geosynchronous orbit after post midnight blastoff on March 16 at 2:oo a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Liftoff of the Falcon 9 carrying the SES-10 telecommunications satellite is now slated for 6 p.m. EDT at the opening of the launch window

The two and a half hour launch window closes at 8:30 p.m. EDT.

SES-10 will replace AMC-3 and AMC-4 to provide enhanced coverage and significant capacity expansion over Latin America, says SES.

“The satellite will be positioned at 67 degrees West, pursuant to an agreement with the Andean Community (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru), and will be used for the Simón Bolivar 2 satellite network.”

SES-10 satellite mission artwork. Credit: SES

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SpaceX SES-10, EchoStar 23 and CRS-10 launches to ISS, ULA SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R launch, Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, OSIRIS-REx, InSight Mars lander, Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX AMOS-6, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Mar 29/31, Apr 1: “SpaceX SES-10, EchoStar 23, CRS-10 launch to ISS, ULA Atlas SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions to the ISS, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 arrives at mouth of Port Canaveral, FL on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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Carnival of Space #502

March 27th, 2017

This week’s Carnival of Space is hosted by Allen Versfeld at his Urban Astronomer blog.

Click here to read Carnival of Space #502.

And if you’re interested in looking back, here’s an archive to the past Carnivals of Space. If you’ve got a space-related blog, you should really join the carnival. Just email an entry to carnivalofspace@gmail.com, and the next host will link to it. It will help get awareness out there about your writing, help you meet others in the space community – and community is what blogging is all about. And if you really want to help out, sign up to be a host. Send an email to the above address.

The post Carnival of Space #502 appeared first on Universe Today.



NASA Test Fires New Engine Controlling ‘Brain’ for First SLS MegaRocket Mission

March 27th, 2017

NASA engineers conduct a test of the first RS-25 engine controller that will be used on an actual Space Launch System flight on the A-2 Test Stand at Stennis Space Center on March 23, 2017. The RS-25 engine, with the flight controller, was test fired for a full-duration 500 seconds. Credits: NASA/SSC

Engineers carried out a critical hot fire engine test firing with the first new engine controlling ‘brain’ that will command the shuttle-era liquid fueled engines powering the inaugural mission of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket.

The first integrated SLS launch combining the SLS-1 rocket and Orion EM-1 deep space crew capsule could liftoff as soon as late 2018 on a mission around the Moon and back.

The full duration static fire test involved an RS-25 engine integrated with the first engine controller flight unit that will actually fly on the maiden SLS launch and took place on Thursday, March 23 at the agency’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

The 500 second-long test firing was conducted with the engine controller flight unit installed on RS-25 development engine no. 0528 on the A-2 Test Stand at Stennis.

The RS-25 engine controller is the ‘brain’ that commands the RS-25 engine and communicates between the engine and the SLS rocket. It is about the size of a dorm refrigerator.

RS-25 new engine controller. Credit: NASA/SSC

The newly developed engine controller is a modern version from the RS-25 controller that helped propel all 135 space shuttle missions to space.

“This an important – and exciting – step in our return to deep space missions,” Stennis Director Rick Gilbrech said. “With every test of flight hardware, we get closer and closer to launching humans deeper into space than we ever have traveled before.”

The modernized RS-25 engine controller was funded by NASA and created in a collaborative effort of engineers from NASA, RS-25 prime contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, and subcontractor Honeywell of Clearwater, Florida.

“The controller manages the engine by regulating the thrust and fuel mixture ratio and monitors the engine’s health and status – much like the computer in your car,” say NASA officials.

“The controller then communicates the performance specifications programmed into the controller and monitors engine conditions to ensure they are being met, controlling such factors as propellant mixture ratio and thrust level.”

A quartet of RS-25 engines, leftover from the space shuttle era and repeatedly reused, will be installed at the base of the core stage to power the SLS at liftoff, along with a pair of extended solid rocket boosters.

The four RS-25 core stage engine will provide a combined 2 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

In addition to being commanded by the new engine controller, the engines are being upgraded in multiple ways for SLS. For example they will operate at a higher thrust level and under different operating conditions compared to shuttle times.

To achieve the higher thrust level required, the RS-25 engines must fire at 109 percent of capability for SLS compared to operating at 104.5 percent of power level capability for shuttle flights.

The RS-25 engines “also will operate with colder liquid oxygen and engine compartment temperatures, higher propellant pressure and greater exhaust nozzle heating.”
SLS will be the world’s most powerful rocket and send astronauts on journeys into deep space, further than human have ever travelled before.

For SLS-1 the mammoth booster will launch in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) Block 1 configuration with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds – more powerful than NASA’s Saturn V moon landing rocket.

NASA engineers conduct a test of the first RS-25 engine controller that will be used on an actual Space Launch System flight on the A-2 Test Stand at Stennis Space Center on March 23, 2017. The RS-25 engine, with the flight controller, was test fired for a full-duration 500 seconds. Credits: NASA/SSC

The next step is evaluating the engine firing test results, confirming that all test objectives were met and certifying that the engine controller can be removed from the RS-25 development engine and then be installed on one of four flight engines that will help power SLS-1.

During 2017, two additional engine controllers for SLS-1 will be tested on the same development engine at Stennis and then be installed on flight engines after certification.

Finally, “the fourth controller will be tested when NASA tests the entire core stage during a “green run” on the B-2 Test Stand at Stennis. That testing will involve installing the core stage on the stand and firing its four RS-25 flight engines simultaneously, as during a mission launch,” says NASA.

Numerous RS-25 engine tests have been conducted at Stennis over more than 4 decades to certify them as flight worthy for the human rated shuttle and SLS rockets.

NASA engineers successfully conducted a development test of the RS-25 rocket engine Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss. The RS-25 will help power the core stage of the agency’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for the journey to Mars. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Although NASA is still targeting SLS-1 for launch in Fall 2018 on an uncrewed mission, the agency is currently conducting a high level evaluation to determine whether the Orion EM-1 capsule can be upgraded in time to instead fly a human crewed mission with two astronauts before the end of 2019 – as I reported here.

The Orion EM-1 capsule is currently being manufactured at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center by prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Aerojet Rocketdyne technicians inspect the engine controller that will be used for the first integrated flight of NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion in late 2018. The engine controller was installed on RS-25 development engine no. 0528 for testing at Stennis Space Center on the A-2 Test Stand on March 23, 2017. The RS-25 engine, with the flight controller, was test fired for a full-duration 500 seconds. Credits: NASA/SSC

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