Ashley Dale, a PhD student at the University of Bristol, will lead a team of seven experts to the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah’s high-altitude terrain this Saturday [18 January].
For two weeks Ashley and his team will be part of a simulated experiment to replicate life on Mars. Their physical and psychological responses to the conditions and food supplies will be studied to help prepare astronauts for future missions to the red planet.
The crew will live together in a small Habitat Module, with limited electricity, food, oxygen and water.
The specialist team will carry out research into a myriad of ground breaking technologies that will eventually be used in real space programmes, including those developed at NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
They will be working on everything from quantifying neurological responses with prototype head-mounted EEGs, to tele-robotic rover field-testing, to development of protocols in tele-surgery studies with a group at the Concordia base in Antarctica, to field-testing of hardware for oxygen and hydrogen extraction from soil.
All outdoor exploration and fieldwork will be conducted wearing a new generation of analogue spacesuits with air supply packs and the researchers will also test ultrasonic spacesuit gloves, which feed information to the user’s fingers to give a sense of texture and temperature, allowing better awareness of the environment around them.
At 25, Ashley is the youngest member of the team. He said: “I began organising this expedition in late 2011. The learning curve and ramp up in my responsibilities was steep, especially when doing an unrelated PhD, but I feel I’ve gained much from this already.
“The coming weeks will be the culmination of over a year of effort. I have pulled together an elite team with an all-encompassing background. I am excited. This will be an intense and productive experience.”
Ashley is joined by two University of Bristol PhD students, Michaela Musilova and Sue Ann Seah who are specialists in astrobiology and spacesuit design engineering, as well as Ewan Reid, crew engineer, Vibha Srivastava, crew scientist and Dr Susan Jewell, crew executive and health and safety officer.
The MDRS has hosted a multitude of researchers, scientists and engineers in the past, but Ashley’s team has two members unique to their mission - Kai Staats, a science documentary film maker and a 2ft tall humanoid robot.
Kai will generate over 100 hours of footage during the expedition. The robot is programmed to recognise voices, can text speech and can move in response to human actions. It is the latest prototype of the NAO robot, and will be used to conduct human-robot interaction studies.
2 WEEKS SIMULATED MISSION TO MARS COMPRISED OF 7 HUMANS AND 1 ROBOT
Bristol University, U.K. – Wednesday, January 15, 2014 – MarsCrew134 will enter the Mars Society Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) January 18 for a two week, total immersion science mission. Joining the seven person human crew will be one Aldebaran NAO humanoid robot.
MarsCrew134 is the 134th crew to work within the MDRS “analog” (simulation environment) in more than a decade of research at this site. This research facility reproduces conditions similar to that of the planet Mars in that the crew is isolated from other humans, reliant upon limited resources, and is limited by a narrow bandwidth to the outside world, an applied forty minute time delay in all communications.
What’s more, the relatively low, temperatures in the winter, Utah desert help invoke a sense of isolation for the crew who will not leave the habitat (a simulated landing module) without a full spacesuit for the duration of their Mission.
A wide variety of real-world research will be conducted during this mission, the results of which assist both public and private sector organizations in preparation for the first human exploration of the Red planet.
Some of the scientific experiments include extracting moisture from the soil for the production of hydrogen based fuels, searching for particular kinds of microorganisms near the habitat, and use of the Aldebaran NAO robot in a various interaction studies with Crew members, including yoga routines and assisting with a simulated, tele-surgery operation.
“As leader of humanoid robotics, Aldebaran is very proud to see increased awareness of near-future humanoid robots as daily companions. It is exciting to see how NAO will interact with MarsCrew134 in these conditions. We’re looking forward to receiving feedback from the team as to how their fellow NAO crew member affects their Mission.” says Eric Stevenson, VP Sales and Marketing for Aldebaran Robotics USA
NAO is Aldebaran’s successful, fully-programmable and interactive humanoid robot equipped with state-of-the-art motion, vision, tactile and audio capabilities. NAO can walk on different surfaces, track and recognize faces or objects, express and understand emotions, react to touch and communicate by voice.
With more than 4,500 units sold worldwide, NAO is the most widely-used humanoid robot in the fields of education and research. Through its interactive and autonomous capabilities, NAO is widely used in human / robot interactions, in both research and real-world environments.
Dr. Susan Jewell, M.D., Executive Officer and Medical Officer for MarsCrew134 states, “In our relatively short, two week mission, we will use the NAO to lay the foundation for longer-term, human / robot interactions studies. As the fastest trip to Mars will be no less than eight months duration, one-way, something like the NAO will be a valuable companion for the few-in-number, human crews. We hope to consider the NAO as our eighth crew member by the time we return from a simulated Mars.”
Aldebaran’s partner RobotsLAB trained MarsCrew134 for this Mission, paving the way for another important step toward near-future robot companionship. A small step for NAO but a big step for robotics.
“We thoroughly enjoyed training MarsCrew134 to program NAO for use during their upcoming mission,” said Elad Inbar, CEO of RobotsLAB. “Sometimes science fiction gets it right–it’s likely that when humans arrive to Mars, a robot will be there with them. This is therefore an important experiment, whether NAO is used to study the latest in Human Robot Interaction theories, to act as an assistant during surgery, or simply to demonstrate a yoga pose to help the crew relaxed.”
Ewan Reid, Roboticist and Crew Engineer for MarsCrew134 offers “While synthetic human companions in the workplace and education are not yet capable of emotion and human-like interaction, the Aldebaran NAO comes the closest of all consumer products on the market. It’s level of autonomy and interaction is astounding, far from what was available only a few years ago. We look forward to having one on-board.”
Aldebaran Robotics and MarsCrew134 see this initial use of the NAO robot in a Mars analog as the first step toward a near-future series of research projects in which humans and synthetic companions work together for an improve living and working environment in otherwise harsh, off-world conditions.
To follow the NAO its seven human companions on a simulated planet Mars, visit www.marscrew134.org.
About Aldebaran Robotics
Founded in 2005 by Bruno Maisonnier and now established in France, the US and China, ALDEBARAN ROBOTICS designs, produces and sells humanoid robots in order to contribute to the betterment of humankind. There are currently over 4,500 NAO robots operating in schools and universities in over 70 countries worldwide for education and research. ALDEBARAN ROBOTICS has a team of 400 people, 40% of whom are engineers and doctors, involved in developing and producing its robots.
Quelle: University of Bristol
Finding habitable, Earth-like planets is a Holy Grail of astrobiology. But so far the hunt has been something of a boon and bust.
'Super-Earths'--rocky planets slightly larger than our own--are particularly common outside our Solar System. Some have even been found in the habitable zone--the area around a star where a planet could have liquid water on its surface.
But because of their size, scientists have assumed that super-Earths should be water worlds. Their massive gravity would flatten their topography, letting oceans overflow their basins and inundate the planet.
Now a new study by Nicolas Cowan, at Northwestern University, and Dorian Abbot, at the University of Chicago, suggests this may not be the case.
"We often imagine that the water will end up at the surface--at least that's the standard picture for exoplanets," Cowan said. "But on Earth, the water is partitioned between two reservoirs: the ocean and the mantle. That interior reservoir can be comparable in size, if not bigger, than the surface reservoir."
In their new model, Norman and Abbot took into account the fact that seafloor pressure and gravity are related. “These massive planets have enormous seafloor pressure, and this force pushes water into the mantle,” Cowan said in a statement. “We can put 80 times more water on a super-Earth and still have its surface look like Earth.”
"There's also a simple mechanism for moving the water from the surface to the interior--plate tectonics," Conan said. Most tectonically active planets—regardless of mass—will have both oceans and exposed continents, the authors concluded. Their paper will be published on Jan. 20 in The Astrophysical Journal.
The exposed continents play a crucial role in maintaining a stable climate. Together with the presence of water, they act as a sort of long range geochemical thermostat.
This process is tied to a deep carbon cycle, Cowan explained, which moves carbon through our planet much like a conveyer belt. Here's how it works. Volcanoes release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas which warms the planet. But the hotter the planet, the more rainfall you get. That CO2-loaded rain then chemically reacts with the surface, creating carbonate rocks. That chemical process pulls the CO2 out of the atmosphere, cooling down the planet. And with plate tectonic, the carbonate rocks eventually make it back into the mantle, closing the carbon loop.
"Somehow our Earth has maintained a relatively stable climate, even though our sun gets 10% brighter every billion years," Cowan said. "This weathering thermostat is our best guess for how this happens."
On fully flooded water worlds, this process could not occur--which is why Cowan and Abbot's new model suggests that super-Earths, with potentially exposed land, may be more habitable than previously thought.
However, the study has two major caveats. First, super-Earths may not have plate tectonics; and second, we don't know how much water is stored in our Earth's mantle. "There may be about one ocean worth of water in the mantle, but that's a very rough guess," Cowan said.
“These are the two things we would like to know better to improve our model,” he said. “Our model is a shot from the hip, but it’s an important step in advancing how we think about super-Earths.”
Our Earth may store about one ocean worth of water in its mantle. Image Credit: University of Maryland
Animation of the system MWC 656. The Be star spins at extremely high speed, ejecting matter through an equatorial disc. Part of this matter falls on to the black hole forming an accretion disc. Animation: Gabriel Pérez - SMM (IAC). On the photo, UB researchers, Marc Ribó and Josep M. Paredes, who have participated in the research.
Spanish scientists have discovered the first binary system ever known to consist of a black hole and a ‘spinning’ star —or more accurately, a Be-type star. Although predicted by theory, none had previously been found. The observations that led to the discovery were performed with the Liverpool and Mercator telescopes at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos (Canary Islands, Spain). The discovery is published today in Nature.
Be-type stars are quite common across the Universe. In our Galaxy alone more than 80 of them are known in binary systems together with neutron stars. “Their distinctive property is their strong centrifugal force: they rotate very fast, close to their break-up speed. It is like they were cosmic spinning tops” says Jorge Casares from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and La Laguna University (ULL). Casares is the lead author and an expert in stellar-mass black holes (he presented the first solid proof of their existence back in 1992).
The newly discovered black hole orbits the Be star known as MWC 656, located in the constellation Lacerta (the Lizard) —8,500 light years from Earth. The Be star rotates so fast that its surface speed exceeds 1 million kilometres per hour. “We started studying this star back in 2010, when space telescopes detected transient gamma-ray emission coming from its direction”, explains Marc Ribó, from the Institute for Sciences of the Cosmos of the University of Barcelona (ICCUB/IEEC-UB). “No more gamma-ray emission has subsequently been detected, but we found that the star was part of a binary system”, he adds.
A detailed analysis of its spectrum allowed scientists to infer the characteristics of its companion. “It turned out to be an object with a mass between 3.8 and 6.9 solar masses. An object like that, invisible to telescopes and with such large mass, can only be a black hole, because no neutron star with more than three solar masses can exist”, states Ignasi Ribas, CSIC researcher at the Institute of Space Sciences (IEEC-CSIC).
The black hole orbits the Be star and is fed by matter ejected from the latter. “The high rotation speed of the Be star causes matter to be ejected into an equatorial disc. This matter is attracted by the black hole and falls on to it, forming another disc —called an accretion disc”. “By studying the emission from the accretion disc we could analyse the motion of the black hole and measure its mass”, comments Ignacio Negueruela, researcher at the University of Alicante (UA).
Scientists believe this object to be a nearby member of a hidden population of Be stars paired with black holes. “We think these systems are much more common than previously thought, but they are difficult to detect because their black holes are fed from gas ejected by Be stars without producing much radiation, in a ‘silent’ way”, Casares highlights. Experts hope to detect other similar binary systems in the Milky Way and other nearby galaxies by using bigger telescopes, such as the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC).
Also participating in the study with Jorge Casares, Ignacio Negueruela, Marc Ribó and Ignasi Ribas are Josep M. Paredes, from the Institute for Scinces of the Cosmos of the University of Barcelona (ICC/IECC-UB), and Artemio Herrero and Sergio Simón, both from IAC and ULL. ICCUB and ICE researchers are also members of the Institute for Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC).
UB researchers, Marc Ribó and Josep M. Paredes, belong to the Group High Energy Astrophysics (HEAUB); their activity is focused on gamma-rays sources in the Milky Way. They are experts on multi-wavelength observations and theoretical modelling. Their research has been published on prestigious journals, for instance they published an article on Science in 2000 that won Josep M. Paredes, ICREA Academia awardee and leader of the group, the City of Barcelona Award for scientific research. Both researchers are members of the international collaboration MAGIC and the project Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA) to build the next generation very high energy gamma-ray instrument. Ribó is the main research of the project at UB.
Black holes, an ongoing challenge
The detection of black holes has been a challenge since their existence was first surmised by John Michell and Pierre Laplace in the 18th century. Given that they are invisible —their enormous gravitational force prevents light from escaping—, telescopes cannot detect them. However, black holes can occasionally trigger high energy radiation from the environment surrounding them and can thus be traced by X-ray satellites. This is the case with active black holes, fed by matter transferred from a nearby star. If violent X-ray emission is detected from a place where nothing but a normal star is seen, a black hole might be hiding there.
Thanks to this method, researchers have discovered 55 potential black holes over the last 50 years. Seventeen of them have what astronomers call a ‘dynamic confirmation’: the feeding star has been localised, allowing for the mass of its invisible companion to be measured. If it is above three solar masses, then it is considered to be a black hole.
The biggest problem is put forth by ‘dormant’ black holes, such as the one found by the Spanish researchers: “Their X-ray emission is almost absent, so it is very unlikely that our attention would be drawn to them”, Casares explains. Researchers believe there are thousands of black hole binary systems across the Milky Way, some of them also with Be-type stellar companions.
Quelle: Universitat de Barcelona
Die bevorstehende Produkteinführung eines SpaceX Raumfahrzeugs in Form der Dragon-Kapsel und der Träger-Rakete Falcon-9 zu einem Demonstrationsflug zur internationalen Weltraumstation ISS steht kurz bevor, welches ein weiterer Meilenstein zur kommerziellen Raumfahrt darstellt. " Ist fast wie der Weg damals zu Apollo, sagt mein Verstand, " so Mike Horkachuck, NASA' s-Projekthauptleiter für SpaceX. " Wir hatten Mercury, dann Gemini und schließlich hatten wir Apollo. Mit Dragon ist die Richtung ähnlich, noch geht es nicht zum Mond oder anderem Spektakulären, aber wir sind bei den Anfängen unseres Handelns. Dies kann unsere Mercury sein, aus der sich schließlich Space-Crews transportieren und zu langfristigen Passagierflügen führen."
NASA Commercial Crew Partner SpaceX Tests Dragon Parachute System
Engineers and safety specialists from NASA and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) gathered in Morro Bay, Calif., in late December to demonstrate how the company's Dragon spacecraft's parachute system would function in the event of an emergency on the launch pad or during ascent.
The test was part of an optional milestone under NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative and approved by the agency in August. Through the Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX is one of NASA's commercial partners working to develop a new generation of U.S. spacecraft and rockets capable of transporting humans to and from low-Earth orbit from American soil. NASA intends to use such commercial systems to fly U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
The 12,000-pound test craft was lifted 8,000 feet above sea level by an Erickson Sky Crane helicopter and flown over the Pacific Ocean. Following Dragon's release, two drogue parachutes were released from the top of the spacecraft to slow its decent, before the three main parachutes deployed. The craft splashed down and was quickly recovered by the Sky Crane and carried back to shore.
"The parachute test is essential for the commercial crew effort because it helps us better understand how SpaceX's system performs as it safely returns crew," said Jon Cowart, NASA Partner Integration deputy manager working with SpaceX. "Like all of our partners, SpaceX continues to provide innovative solutions based on NASA's lessons learned that could make spaceflight safer."
During a normal spacecraft landing, the parachutes will be aided by the Dragon’s SuperDraco thrusters to provide a soft controlled landing. This redundancy on both the parachutes and thrusters is designed to ensure safe landings for crews.
"SpaceX is working diligently to make the Dragon spacecraft the safest vehicle ever flown," said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. "The parachute system is an integral part of Dragon’s ability to provide a safe landing for nominal and abort conditions -- with this successful test we are well-positioned to execute a full end-to-end test of the launch escape system later this year."
The parachute test puts SpaceX a step closer to launch abort system tests. The company currently is manufacturing the spacecraft and rocket to be used for these flight tests.
SpaceX is on track to complete all 15 of its CCiCap milestones in 2014. All of NASA's industry partners, including SpaceX, continue to meet their established milestones in developing commercial crew transportation capabilities.
Since the conception of the manned spaceflight engineer programme, the intent was to fly a dedicated officer aboard each classified flight. For Mission 51C, it would be Air Force Major Gary Payton (back left). The other NASA crew members were Loren Shriver (front left) and Ken Mattingly (front right), with Jim Buchli and Ellison Onizuka behind. Photo Credit: NASA
“Miracle” is a term which is often applied to many aspects of the space programme: to Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight to the accomplishment of the first manned lunar landing or to the safe return of Apollo 13. But the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery in January 1985 on Mission 51C marked a miracle of another kind. In a sense, it was quite literally miraculous that the orbiter made it into space at all … both metaphorically and literally, as the Challenger accident investigation would later reveal. When astronauts Ken Mattingly, Loren Shriver, Ellison Onizuka, and Jim Buchli were named as the crew of STS-10 in October 1982, they confidently expected to launch aboard Challenger in September of the following year on the first classified mission for the Department of Defense. It would put the shuttle’s advertised ability as a “truck” for the United States’ largest and most sensitive national security sentinels to the ultimate test.
Unfortunately, the mission quickly ran into problems when the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster, built by Boeing for the Air Force, failed to properly inject the first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite into geostationary orbit in April 1983. Mattingly’s mission was manifested to use the same type of rocket stage. The flight hung in limbo whilst an investigation board pored over the failure and made recommendations, and Boeing spent a year correcting the problems and recertifying the booster. By November 1983, Mattingly’s flight had been redesignated as Mission 41E and rescheduled for July of the following year, but within a few months it was delayed yet again. When NASA issued an updated manifest in May 1984, it had vanished entirely and Mattingly’s crew were reassigned to 51C, still with Challenger and set for December. “That,” said Loren Shriver, “is when we started to learn that the numerical sequence of the numbers of the missions … didn’t mean a lot.”
For a time, Shriver wondered if he would ever fly, but unlike other missions, payloads were very much interchangeable; they were a DoD crew. “You were kind of linked to it,” he recalled, “as long as there was some thought that it was going to happen, and it never did completely go away. It just went kind of inactive for a while, then came back as 51C.” When he was assigned to the mission, Shriver was not surprised that his crewmates were all active-duty military officers. “I think NASA believed that it didn’t have to do that,” he recalled, “but I think it also believed that things would probably go a lot smoother if they did.”
It became a staple of each Department of Defense mission for a patriotic crew patch, with little indication as to its primary objective. Photo Credit: NASA
Flying a classified mission posed its own problems for Mattingly. Within NASA, he had become familiar with the practice of sharing information, particularly about the shuttle. With a Department of Defense payload, the crew could not publicly discuss the particulars of their flight and the exact details were made available to only a handful of engineers, technicians, and Air Force managers. “I had some apprehension,” Mattingly said, “about could we keep the exchange of information timely and clear in this small community when everybody around us is telling anything they want and we’re keeping these secrets. Security was the challenge of the mission.”
Cipher locks were placed on training materials, “but then you had to give the code to a thousand people, so you could go to work!” They were given a classified meeting room in the astronaut office, a classified safe for their documents … and a classified phone, with an unlisted number. In the entire span of their training time together, the phone rang just once. It was a sales call, asking Mattingly if he wanted to buy a new long-distance service!
The ridiculous levels of secrecy became even more laughable at other times, particularly when the astronauts were obliged to “disguise” the places where they were doing their training. They would file T-38 flight plans to Denver, then file new ones to the San Francisco Bay area, then rent a car to eventually reach their military destination at Sunnyvale in California. They were asked to do their mission training during the daytime and at night, to keep the launch time secret from prying eyes, or anyone who could be bothered to put two and two together, but all this furore never convinced Mattingly than anyone really cared. On one occasion, their office secretary booked motel rooms for them—”secretly,” of course—but the four astronauts, crammed into a decrepit old rental car, with Ellison Onizuka at the wheel, had a surprise when they arrived. Jim Buchli spotted it first.
“Stop here,” he said. “Now, let’s go over this one more time. We made extra stops to make sure that we wouldn’t come here directly … and they can’t trace our flight plan. We didn’t tell our families. We didn’t tell anyone where we were. And we can’t tell anyone who we’re visiting. Look at that.” Four sets of eyes peered over toward their “secret” motel … and beheld an enormous banner, emblazoned with the legend: WELCOME, 51C ASTRONAUTS. “How’s that for security?” chuckled Mattingly.
When the countdown clock began ticking, nine minutes before launch, it must have caught the assembled spectators by surprise. Mission 51C was indeed the quietest human launch ever conducted by NASA, a fact which sat uneasily with Public Affairs staff and public alike. Photo Credit: NASA
When Challenger returned from her previous flight in October 1984, she was scheduled to be relaunched on 8 December for 51C, but inspections revealed that almost 5,000 of the delicate thermal protection tiles had become debonded during re-entry. One tile, located in the vicinity of the left-hand wing chine, had completely separated from the airframe and, although not a catastrophic problem in itself, revealed a far more worrying issue. A vulcaniser material, known as “screed,” used to smooth metal surfaces under tile bonding materials, had softened to such an extent that its “holding” qualities were impaired. Subsequent investigation revealed that repeated injections of a tile waterproofing agent called “sylazane,” coupled with the effects of six high-temperature re-entries, had caused degradation in the bonding material. By the time Challenger flew her next mission, the use of sylazane had been scrapped. In the interim she was reassigned to Mission 51E, scheduled for launch in February 1985, and 51C switched to Discovery with a launch date in late January 1985. Years later, Loren Shriver did not remember any significant mission impact, other than the six-week launch delay, from switching orbiters.
Due to the classified nature of the flight, some Air Force officials did not even want the precise launch date, or even the astronauts’ names, released to the public. Loren Shriver was not alone in his amazement at this excessive insistence on secrecy. “We weren’t going to be able to invite guests for the launch in the beginning,” he told the NASA oral historian. “This is your lifelong dream and ambition. You’re finally an astronaut and you’re going to go fly the Space Shuttle and you can’t invite anybody to come watch …We finally got them talked into letting us invite … 30 people, and then maybe some car-pass guests, who could drive out on the causeway … but trying to decide who, among all of your relatives and your wife’s relatives, are going to be among the 30 who get to come see the launch, well, it’s a career-limiting kind of decision if you make the wrong decision. You have part of the family mad at you for the rest of your life!”
Fortunately, Shriver’s family and most of his wife’s relatives were from Iowa, which was sufficiently distant for many to be unable to make the journey to Florida. Privately, Shriver and his crewmates worried that their inability to discuss the mission openly might compromise their preparedness and the thoroughness of their training. It must have been an unusual sight to behold the 51C stack, sitting on Pad 39A, with only a select number of military and NASA personnel knowing precisely when the launch would take place; in fact, the media had been told to expect liftoff within a three-hour “block” of time, sometime between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. EST on 23 January 1985. Freezing weather conditions kept Discovery on the ground that afternoon, but the situation seemed to have improved marginally by the following day. For the spectators at KSC, the famous countdown clock, which normally ticks away the final minutes and seconds, showed a blank face and all communications between launch controllers and the flight crew were kept quiet. Then, at 2:41 p.m. EST, the blackout suddenly ended with a statement from the launch commentator:
“ … T-9 minutes and counting. The launch events are now being controlled by the ground launch sequencer …
”The remainder of the countdown proceeded normally, and Discovery lifted off at 2:50 p.m. and thundered into the cold blue Florida sky. Ascent was interesting, because communication between the orbiter and Mission Control was kept strictly under wraps, with only the voice of the commentator reading off a string of standard calls pertaining to the performance of the main engines, the fuel cells, the Auxiliary Power Units, and the shuttle’s steadily increasing altitude and velocity. No indication was given as to the precise duration of the mission—one source reported that NASA would reveal this information a mere 16 hours before the scheduled landing—and, with the exception that the classified payload would be deployed later that day, very few other details were released about the flight. Many of the accredited members of the press who were in attendance mocked the “secrecy”; one NBC journalist quipped that “a Russian tourist on a Florida beach, a hundred miles away, could have called the Kremlin with the exact launch time!”
In one of relatively few images ever publicly released from Mission 51C, astronauts Loren Shriver (bottom), Ellison Onizuka (left), and Jim Buchli pose for a photograph in Discovery’s flight deck. Photo Credit: NASA
Today, almost three decades later, 51C remains classified, but rumours have emerged over the years that Discovery’s crew possibly deployed a spacecraft codenamed “Magnum”—a signals intelligence satellite, operated by the National Reconnaissance Office for the CIA—which was boosted into near-geostationary orbit by its IUS. Reports have suggested that the TRW-built Magnum weighed somewhere between 4,800-6,000 pounds (2,200-2,700 kg) and was notable for its physical size, featuring 100 m-wide umbrella-like reflecting dish antennas to collect radio frequency signals from Earth. Aviation Week noted that Discovery entered an orbit of 126 x 322 miles (204 x 519 km), inclined 28.45 degrees to the equator, and executed three engine burns during its first four circuits of the globe. The payload was then deployed during the seventh orbit. Deployment was the responsibility of the entire crew, although this crew was unusual in that it included a unique military expert: Major Gary Eugene Payton of the Air Force, a member of a new cadre of payload specialists, known as manned spaceflight engineers, specifically chosen by the Department of Defense for these classified missions.
From its earliest conception the shuttle was dominated by the ambitions of the Air Force, and an assumption had long been made that the Department of Defense would employ the reusable spacecraft to carry many of its classified payloads. A new launch site was being built at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., for near-polar missions, and efforts also encompassed the design and construction of a dedicated Mission Control, known as the Shuttle Operations and Planning Center (SPOC). However, as the 1970s wore on and military budgets withered under Jimmy Carter’s Democratic administration, the Air Force opted to delay the SPOC in favour of making modifications to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to support its missions. Parallel plans to permanently assign one orbiter (probably Discovery) to military objectives and hire a dedicated Air Force astronaut corps to fly the missions were abandoned, and it was decided to use personnel already detailed to NASA. “The only opportunity for an Air Force program,” wrote space historian Michael Cassutt, “seemed to be in NASA’s new class of payload specialists.” It was Air Force Under-Secretary Hans Mark (later to become Deputy Administrator of NASA under Jim Beggs) who introduced the new manned spaceflight engineer position in January 1979 and assigned responsibility for its development to Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Christian of Los Angeles Space Division. Early guidelines called for candidates to have between three and 10 years’ of active military service, to rank between a first lieutenant and a major, to be able to pass NASA’s required flight physicals, to hold a degree in engineering or science, and to have at least two years’ experience in programme acquisition, test, and launch support, or flight and missile operations. By August, 14 officers had been selected—a dozen from the Air Force and two from the Navy—although two of them declined the invitation and only one was replaced. Consequently, 13 manned spaceflight engineer candidates arrived at Air Force Space Division in El Segundo, Calif., in February 1980, under Christian’s command. Their number included David Vidrine, the naval officer who would later, briefly, be considered for a seat on Mission 41C, as well as Gary Payton and the man who would serve as his 51C backup, Keith Wright.
Their selection was trumpeted by the Air Force as illustrative of the service’s bright future in space, although little interest was shown in NASA’s offer to invite the 13 candidates to Houston for two years of training and evaluation. “At that time,” grumbled one senior officer, “any Air Force guy who went to NASA never came back!” The Air Force’s rejection led the civilian space agency to close ranks, refusing further assistance for the manned spaceflight engineers and insisting that it had neither chosen them, nor was it able to control them.
Commander Ken Mattingly (right) had already announced his retirement from NASA to return to the U.S. Navy by the time Mission 51C took place. By his own admission, only the first shuttle mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base might have encouraged him to stay. A year later, the loss of Challenger sounded the death-knell for shuttle flights from the West Coast. Photo Credit: NASA
“I was naïve enough to believe that the payload side would be treated by NASA the same way the Air Force launch people treated us,” Gary Payton explained later. “In the world I came from, payload requirements would drive the time of day you launched, the time of year; everything. In 1980, NASA was still worried about getting the shuttle to fly, so we were not paid much attention. It was a rude awakening.” Some space agency officials felt that the newcomers should be considered as “engineers,” not “fliers,” and should not participate in any flight-related training until they were formally assigned to a shuttle crew. Frustrations over the excessive secrecy imposed on the Department of Defense missions often boiled over into disputes. Nevertheless, the manned spaceflight engineers proceeded with their duties, working on the development of military payloads, including the Navstar Global Positioning System, the Defense Satellite Communications System, and others, and the group completed training in December 1981. By the late summer of the following, 14 more candidates had been selected, including two women and one black officer, with a broader range of academic credentials, ranging from bioenvironmental research to computer science and weapons engineers to rescue pilots.
In June 1982, several classified payloads were carried into orbit aboard STS-4 and several manned spaceflight engineers were involved in the preparation and execution of this mission. Even so, their relationships with NASA astronauts were poor. Ken Mattingly, who commanded STS-4, described them as “sour.” At around this time, Gary Payton and Keith Wright were announced as payload specialist candidates for the STS-10 mission and a handful of others—Jeff Detroye, Eric Sundberg, Brett Watterson, Frank Casserino, and Daryl Joseph, all from the first MSE group—were assigned to support follow-on flights. Their roles would be to operate military experiments and observe the deployments of classified satellites. In the summer of 1983, Payton was assigned as the prime manned spaceflight engineer on Ken Mattingly’s STS-10 crew.
Some sources have speculated over the years that the inclusion of manned spaceflight engineers was a method of preventing the NASA crew from gaining too much knowledge of the classified payload. For his part, Loren Shriver did not see Payton’s role in this way; he was very much like any other payload specialist, assigned to the crew to complete his own experiments and tasks. “Gary had a specific purpose,” he said, “but I don’t think it was to make sure that we didn’t learn about what the details of the mission were. As a matter of fact, we all got briefed into the mission and we knew exactly what was going on.” Many of their efforts were effectively hamstrung by the failure of the IUS in April 1983, and, although Cassutt has noted that several payloads were “dual-configured” and could be launched by either the shuttle or an expendable Titan booster, it would seem that Magnum was designed specifically for deployment from the orbiter’s payload bay. As a result, it could not be cancelled, only moved to the next available shuttle opportunity. “In any case,” Cassutt wrote, “because of Magnum’s importance, the DoD exercised its launch-on-demand option, pre-empting the next Shuttle-IUS spot on the manifest.” According to the January 1984 manifest, Mission 51C was to have been an IUS flight to deploy the second Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS), but by May its slot had been taken by Magnum. The TDRS was moved a couple of months downstream and reassigned to 51E.
If Gary Payton’s role was as an observer of Magnum and the IUS, then responsibility for the actual deployment of the payload fell to Ellison Onizuka—the first Asian-American astronaut, of Japanese-American parentage—and North Dakota-born Jim Buchli. Certainly, the deployment itself went perfectly, for Onizuka would soon be assigned to another IUS deployment flight, Mission 51L, with a TDRS. Onizuka said in a pre-flight interview for 51L that he was “very familiar” and “very comfortable” with the performance of the IUS, strongly suggesting that the earlier problems with the booster had been overcome by the spring of 1985. (Certainly, changes had been implemented in the nozzle design and four successful altitude-chamber firings were performed.)
Discovery touches down at the Kennedy Space Center on 27 January 1985, following the shortest operational flight in the shuttle’s 30-year history. Photo Credit: NASA
To this day, 51C remains the shortest operational flight of the shuttle; when Discovery touched down at KSC at 4:23 pm EST on 27 January, she chalked up a mission of just over three days. It was the final flight for Ken Mattingly, who had already announced his retirement from NASA in July 1984 to return to active duty in the Navy as head of space programmes for the Naval Electronic Systems Command in Virginia. In fact, he took up his new post only two weeks after 51C landed. Years later, Mattingly admitted that only one other mission might have kept him with the civilian space agency. “The only mission that I really thought I could get interested in was the first Vandenberg mission,” he told the NASA oral historian, “and [Bob Crippen] was already doing that, so I decided it was probably best to change assignments.”
It would appear that the Navy originally wanted Mattingly to head up its new Naval Space Command at Dahlgren, Va., but the 51C delays meant that he either had to drop the shuttle flight or lose the assignment. “I wanted to stay and finish the mission,” he said, “because we spent so much time on it and it was a particularly good one for me, because those guys [on the crew] were so good.” In Mattingly’s mind, 51C was really “Loren’s mission,” with Shriver cutting his teeth as a pilot before moving on to command his own shuttle flight. It is interesting that all three NASA members of the crew went on from the closeted world of Department of Defense operations to participate in three of the most dramatic and visible missions of the decade: Buchli would be aboard a joint Spacelab mission with West Germany in October 1985, Shriver would later command the flight to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope … and Onizuka, tragically, would secure his own place in history as a member of Challenger’s final crew.
Bright lights in the night sky sparked UFO alerts in Saudi Arabia, but the display turned out to be a well-known space phenomenon: the fiery re-entry of some Chinese space junk.
Multiple videos of Thursday night's lights were posted on YouTube. One sighting was reported by a witness who was near the Prophet's Mosque in the western Saudi city of Medina, according to reports from the Saudi newspaper Al Sada and the Emirates24/7 website.
"I was passing just near the mosque when I saw the object ... I captured a film of it, but I could not trace it as it split into two or three parts," Al Sada quoted Fahd Al Harbi as saying.
"This was a satellite re-entry that was predicted," NBC News space analyst James Oberg said in an email. "The object was a rocket body from the Chinese communications satellite Chinasat 9, launched in 2008. It is amazing how bright the fragments can be, and when they fly horizontally and 'in formation,' they often fool people — especially pilots — into imagining they are lighted windows in aircraft, spacecraft, or even UFOs."
We've seen lots of similar reports relating to space junk — including a SpaceX rocket flaming out over the Indian Ocean last September as well as rocket re-entries observed over China and the Middle East in 2012. The best-known incident was the "space spiral" spotted over Norway in 2009. This posting on the SeeSat-L discussion forum provides some great historical perspective.
The dust and gas around the star HD142527 observed by ALMA are shown in red and green, respectively, while near-infrared observations taken by the NAOJ Subaru Telescope are shown in blue. The dust is heavily concentrated in the northern (upper) part of the disk.
Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NAOJ, Fukagawa et al.
Alien planets may be forming inside a giant gas ring located surprisingly far from its young parent star, scientists say.
In fact, the planet-forming region is so far from its star — about five times the distance between our own sun and Neptune — that it appears to be the first time researchers have seen such an arrangement for the birth of alien planets.
Japanese astronomers spotted the giant planet-forming ring while studying new images of the star named HD 142527 taken by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, in the Chilean desert. They created a video animation of the strange planet nursery to illustrate the discovery. The star is located about 450 light-years away from Earth and is around 2 million years old. [7 Ways to Discover Alien Planets]
The powerful radio telescopes that make up ALMA offer astronomers a chance to peek at cosmic phenomena that are normally invisible. By detecting light with very short wavelengths, in the millimeter and submillimeter range, ALMA can spot the clouds of gas and dust where new stars are form, as well as the disks of debris around stare where planets are born.
The new ALMA observations of HD 142527 found that the star is surrounded by cosmic dust that could be smashing together to form planets. Especially encouraging is a bright "knot" in on the northern side of this disk — a submillimeter emission that is 30 times stronger than the southern side emission.
"We are very surprised at the brightness of the northern side," Misato Fukagawa, an assistant professor at Osaka University, said in a statement. "I have never seen such a bright knot in such a distant position. This strong submillimeter emission can be interpreted as an indication that large amount of material is accumulated in this position. When a sufficient amount of material is accumulated, planets or comets can be formed here."
This image by the ALMA radio telescope in Chile shows a giant ring of dust and gas where alien planets may be forming around the star HD142527 about 450 ;light-years from Earth.
Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Fukagawa et al
Fukagawa and colleagues believe that if the ring has a ratio of dust to gas (1 to 100) comparable to other solar systems, then giant gas planets several times more massive than Jupiter could be forming in the disk. But if this dense knot in the ring has a higher ratio of dust, it could spawn a "dust trap" that gives rise to Earth-like rocky planets and small bodies like comets.
In any case, the solar system HD "offers a rare opportunity for us to directly observe the critical moment of planet formation and can provide new insights into the origin of wide-orbit planetary bodies," the scientists wrote in their paper posted on the preprint service ArXiv.org.
The scientists say they hope to get more precise measurements of the amount of gas in the disk to identify what kinds of planets might be forming around the baby star. They also hope ALMA can help them spot even more planet-forming disks around other stars.
"HD 142527 is a peculiar object, as far as our limited knowledge goes," Fukagawa added. "Our final goal is to reveal the major physical process which controls the formation of planets. To achieve this goal, it is important to obtain a comprehensive view of the planet formation through observations of many protoplanetary disks."
Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, left, and Neil A. Armstrong, right
President Barack Obama has signed HR 667, the congressional resolution that redesignates NASA's Hugh L. Dryden Flight Research Center as the Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center, into law. The resolution also names Dryden's Western Aeronautical Test Range as the Hugh L. Dryden Aeronautical Test Range. Both Hugh Dryden and Neil Armstrong are aerospace pioneers whose contributions are historic to NASA and the nation as a whole. NASA is developing a timeline to implement the name change.
Armstrong, who died in 2012, became the first human to set foot on another world during his historic Apollo 11 moonwalk on July 20, 1969. Armstrong's words "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind," spoken as he stepped onto the lunar surface, instantly became a part of history.
Armstrong joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA's predecessor, in 1955. He served as an aeronautical research scientist and then as a pilot at the High-Speed Flight Station (later to become Dryden), before becoming an astronaut in 1962. Armstrong racked up over 2,450 flying hours, serving as a project pilot on several test planes, including the X-15 rocket plane.
Dr. Hugh L. Dryden was one of America's most prominent aeronautical engineers and was serving as NASA's deputy administrator at the time of his death in 1965.
In 1920, Dryden was named to head the National Bureau of Standards' aerodynamics section, where he studied air pressures on everything from fan and propeller blades to buildings. He joined the NACA in 1931, and by 1949 he had become the first person to hold the new position of Director of the NACA.
Dryden helped shape policy that led to development of the high-speed research program and its record-setting X-15 rocket aircraft. Dryden's leadership was evident in establishing vertical- and short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft programs, and he sought solutions to the problem of atmospheric re-entry for piloted spacecraft and ballistic missiles. Dryden was also instrumental in the development of the Unitary Wind Tunnel Plan, which saved millions of dollars by avoiding facility duplication.
On Oct. 1, 1958, the NACA became the nucleus of the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Dryden was appointed its first deputy administrator.
The X-15A-2 with drop tanks and ablative coating is shown parked on the NASA ramp in front of the XB-70. These aircraft represent two different approaches to flight research. The X-15 was a research airplane in the purest sense, whereas the XB-70 was an experimental bomber intended for production but diverted to research when production was canceled by changes in the Department of Defense's offense doctrine.
The X-15A-2 had been modified from its original configuration with a longer fuselage and drop tanks. To protect it against aerodynamic heating, researchers had coated it with an ablative coating covered by a layer of white paint. These changes allowed the X-15A-2 to reach a maximum speed of Mach 6.7, although it could be sustained for only a brief period.
The XB-70, by contrast, was designed for prolonged high-altitude cruise flight at Mach 3. The aircraft's striking shape-with a long forward fuselage, canards, a large delta wing, twin fins, and a box-like engine bay-allowed it to ride its own Mach 3 shockwave, so to speak. A joint NASA-Air Force program used the aircraft to collect data in support of the U.S supersonic transport (SST) program, which never came to fruition because of environmental concerns.
August 4, 1967
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