Wednesday, May 15, 2013
NASA’s Messenger probe recently became the first spacecraft ever to orbit Mercury, having completed an extended two-year mission in March.
Friday, May 03, 2013
Florida's Space Coast boomed when NASA was launching shuttles. Now the region is struggling and pinning hopes of a space renaissance on private companies like SpaceX moving into old NASA facilities. But the government space agency isn't so quick to hand over the keys.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Last week, a new study alleged that Voyager 1 had burst through the heliosphere into interstellar space. NASA quickly shot down that explanation, explaining that the craft is still within the heliosphere. But what, and where, is that?
Wednesday, March 06, 2013
What happened to the future? In the '60s and '70s, says astrophysicist Neil Tyson, kids thought about going to space, exploring; tomorrow seemed so, so near. But no longer. Our world these days, is tighter, more awake to limits, and that's not good, says Tyson, not good for kids, and especially not good for the economy. Tyson insists that dreaming makes us richer.
Monday, February 04, 2013
In a building at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, about 40 engineers and scientists are tackling the practical challenges of space exploration -- like designing astronaut clothing for long missions, converting trash into fuel, and harvesting extra-terrestrial resources.
"It's really a return to NASA's roots, the very early days of how NASA designed new technology" says Jack Fox, Chief of the Surface Systems Office at Kennedy Space Center. "We believe in a hands-on approach: just try something out, and if it works, great. If it doesn't, put it aside and try something different."
The Swamp Works team is housed in the refurbished Apollo flight crew training building, where astronauts once familiarized themselves with the lunar module and learned how to use the lunar rover. Scientists are now trying to solve some of the problems faced by those astronauts -- like dealing with space dirt.
"Dust got everywhere. It clung to everything," says Fox.
On one side of the building scientists are developing technology to banish dust electronically.
And in the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations lab, engineers are figuring out how to deal with the sandblasting effects of rocket exhaust during landing and lift-off on the moon and other planets. They're also building a machine to excavate space dirt, or regolith. NASA one day hopes to send astronauts beyond the moon, to an asteroid or Mars, and the Swamp Works team is developing a robot that can excavate other planets for water and other resources.
The RASSOR (Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot) looks like a small tank. At each end is a fearsome toothed drum, used to scoop up the regolith. It can also raise and lower its arms to climb over rocks.
Drew Smith, who helped design RASSOR, explains the counter-rotating drums would allow the robot to dig on another planet like the moon.
"Since we don’t have a really large mass on another planet we have to be able to cancel out the excavation forces or it would just spin its tracks and not go anywhere."
The robot weighs about 180 pounds, but on the moon that's only about 30 pounds of force.
The engineers are building a regolith test bed -- essentially a giant sand pit -- which they'll fill with 120 tons of "simulant" or imitation space dirt, so they can test the robot.
Philip Metzger, a physicist at the Regolith Operations Lab, says harvesting resources on other planets could lighten the load of spacecraft blasting off from earth. "By using the resources of space -- of the moon and the resources of Mars, we can reduce the mass of a Mars mission by a factor of between three and five," says Metzger.
NASA aims to eventually send a version of the RASSOR into the craters of the moon to excavate lunar ice deposits. Metzger says anything they design to work on the moon should also work on Mars -- although operating the robot remotely poses a problem: "On the moon there's only a 2.7 second time delay, so you can tele-operate, but on Mars it’s too far of a distance to tele-operate. So robotic autonomy is one of the key technologies we’re trying to develop," he says.
Companies like Caterpillar are interested in robot autonomy for terrestrial mining. "Mining’s moving into places humans can’t go here on earth," says Metzger, adding that space mining companies have also expressed an interest in licensing the technology.
Meanwhile, in a separate building at Kennedy, NASA employees and Lockheed Martin contractors are assembling the spacecraft designed to take astronauts to an asteroid, Mars and beyond. The green welded aluminum pressure capsule of the Orion crew module is being transformed into a functioning spacecraft inside the Operations and Checkout building. Orion's first unmanned foray into space is slated for September 2014.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
If you are up in space looking down on America west of the Mississippi, one of the brightest patches of light at night is on the Great Plains in North Dakota. It's not a city, not a town, not a military installation. What is it?
Monday, October 22, 2012
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is getting ready for its new Atlantis shuttle display with a $100 million building. Construction began in January, and the exhibit is slated to open in July 2013. On November 2nd, Atlantis will make the journey by road from the Kennedy Space Center on a special 76 wheel transporter. The 9.8 mile trip will take all day, with stops along the way for ceremonies with shuttle program employees and the public.
The building that will house the space shuttle is about 116 feet tall and will have a floor area of 90,000 square feet -- big enough to accommodate the 78-foot wingspan and 57-foot height of the orbiter.
Getting Atlantis over to the Visitor Complex is a delicate operation, but not quite as tricky as Endeavour's recent trek through Los Angeles.
"We are at the space center, there's 144,000 acres that we've got to work with here," says Tim Macy, the director of project development at the visitor center. "There's some big wide open spaces."
Still, some modifications have been made to accommodate the shuttle's move.
"We'll take down a ton of light poles, stop signs and traffic signals to get here, but that's just logistics," says Macy. A short section of roadway has also been built to bring the shuttle into the building.
Macy says the trickiest part of the move will likely be maneuvering the shuttle into the new display hall.
After the the orbiter is safely inside, it will be wrapped in protective "bubble wrap" to shield it while construction continues.
The new section of road leading up to the building will be torn up and eventually replaced with landscaping.
Workers will start filling in the final wall of the building withing days of Atlantis being moved inside. Up to 150 people a day are working on the project, and Macy says crews could be increased if necessary.
“I’m really confident in the schedule," says Macy.
"I mean, we’ve built in some weather days that we haven’t had to take advantage of in terms of the exterior of the building, and as anyone will tell you, once you get in and you get sealed up, you can control your own destiny.”
The completed display hall will include a replica of the external tank and solid rocket boosters that visitors will walk under as they enter the building. One of the outside walls incorporates a "swoop" that will be covered by orange cladding to symbolize the shuttle flight.
"You know when it comes down and gets into its de-orbit burn, that orange color, the glow that comes around the base of it, that's the look we're going for there," says Macy.
Tim Macy is confident visitors will be impressed when the display opens next summer.
"We think we're telling the right story here, and we understand the responsibility that's been given to us," says Macy.
"We didn't just get [the orbiter], we feel we've earned the opportunity to present this to the public."
Friday, October 05, 2012
Friday, October 05, 2012
Shuttle technicians at the Kennedy Space Center are finishing their work to prepare the last of NASA's retired orbiters for display.
Atlantis flew the last shuttle mission in July 2011, and it's due to roll out to the visitor complex on November 2nd.
Inside the Orbiter Processing Facility Hi-Bay 2 at the space center, workers are making sure the shuttle is free of toxic fuel residue and other hazardous parts. The main engines have been removed and will be used for future space programs
Many of the staff still at the shuttle processing facility have spent decades working on the orbiters.
Lead shuttle systems technician specialist David Bakehorn says after 27 years working on the shuttles, he’s sad to see it go.
“But it’s really nice that it’s staying at home," he says.
"We were worried we weren’t going to get a real live orbiter here in Florida, (because) there’s only so many to go around, and I’m glad to be a part of it."
Shuttle Discovery was flown to the National Air and Space Museum near Washington DC in April, and last month Endeavour piggybacked on the 747 transporter to California. Enterprise, which never flew in orbit, is now in New York, and a replica shuttle which had been on display at Kennedy for 18 years was sent by barge to Houston.
Atlantis only has to go 9 miles. Next week is landing gear will be retracted, and in mid-October it will be put on a special transporter and rolled over to the Vehicle Assembly Building.
On November 2nd, Atlantis will be moved by road to the Visitor Center, where a new building's been constructed to house the shuttle.
Sightseers won't actually be able to go inside the shuttle, though, so this is the last chance to walk inside the cabin and the living quarters before it becomes a museum piece.
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
The space shuttle Endeavour has taken off on its final flight across the country, where it's heading to Los Angeles. WMFE's Mark Simpson was on hand at dawn to photograph its departure from Florida's Kennedy Space Center. (You can see more of Mark's pictures in the days leading up to Wednesday's departure here, and read more about today's launch here.)
Here it is, bolted on top of a 747, prior to takeoff.
The countdown clock -- now dark.
Before the shuttle lands in Los Angeles on Friday, it will make a stop in Houston -- home to Mission Control.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
The space shuttle Endeavour is waiting at the Kennedy Space Center for its final flight to Los Angeles, where it will be transported at a stately pace through the city to its final home at the California Science Center.
WMFE's Mark Simpson has been visiting the Space Center and photographing the preparations.
The Endeavour will be flown on the back of a modified 747, known as the shuttle carrier. It was lifted onto the back of the 747 this weekend and bolted into place.
The structure around the shuttle is called the mate/demate device.
Here's a close-up of the attachment:
If the weather cooperates, the Endeavour will leave Florida Wednesday morning. We'll have more pictures after the launch.
Can't get enough of the space shuttle program? We were there when the Atlantis made the final flight of the space shuttle program. Here's the last flight of the Discovery. The Enterprise came to New York -- and WNYC crowdsourced photos of it flying over the city. We saw it sitting on the tarmac at JFK. TN even saw it sailing up the Hudson. Now it's on permanent exhibit at the Intrepid. And some parts of the program are being repurposed: NASA's giant crawler got a tune-up for its post-shuttle life.
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Rockets are expensive. Elevators are cheap. Well they're cheaper than rockets. Even 100 mile tall elevators. This is the idea behind a push to build a space elevator, and it dates back to the 1950s, or by some accounts, 1895.
The challenges of building such a big elevator are, well, astronomical. But a growing number of aspiring private space explorers think the time is right to boldly ride where only astronauts have gone before, in the process expanding the thrill of space to new populations and reducing the cost of lunar exploration dramatically.
NASA thinks the idea could work. The space agency paid out a $900,000 prize in 2009 as part of a competition for early phase testing. See the (admittedly blurry) video below for some highlights from the 2009 Space Elevator Games competition.
Today a new group, LiftPort wraps up a Kickstarter fundraising campaign that has pulled in over $90,000 to fund the next tall test in the coming months.
The Takeaway interviewed the president of LiftPort Michael Lain about his progress and plans. Listen to the full interview above.
A few excerpts that offer a taste of his dream:
"The general idea is pretty straight forward. Imagine you have a ball on a string and you are spinning it over your head. The string in the middle stays straight, right? Now expand that to an Earth-size system. The Earth rotates and you have a counterweight, a satellite, deep out in space with a very long, very strong string. The mechanics are exactly the same and you've literally built yourself a ladder that you can climb into space with using robots instead of rockets."
He says he already has enough money to start testing.
"We're going to start working on what we refer to as a tethered tower. We have been building robots for a long time and what we are looking to do is break a couple records. So, what we are using is high altitude balloons tethered to the ground with a robot climbing back and forth and we're probably going to break the system by trying to reach Mt. McKinley altitudes of 6.2 km. That would make us the tallest thing in North America. We think that's a pretty exciting goal to reach towards."
A space elevator would need to be more than 100 km, but 6.2 is a start.
The Economist reports a second company, X-Tech, has also been founded to explore construction of a space elevator. The magazine cites estimates that a space life could eventually be built for $10 billion, a "modest sum" compared to rocket exploration programs that would achieve the same access and aims. Plus, if billionaires are paying hundreds of millions of dollars already for a peek out a window in high orbit on Virgin Galactic, then it might not be a bad business plan to offer up walks on the moon's surface -- via elevator -- for a meteoric markup.
Here's LiftPort's video vision for how a space elevator could work. Below that is video from the Space Elevator Games:
Thursday, September 06, 2012
In 1977, NASA affixed a "golden record" to two space probes called Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. We chat with the creative director of NASA's Voyager Golden Record project who helped compile music which was intended for future humans or extra-terrestrials to discover.
Wednesday, September 05, 2012
(Orlando -- WMFE) Retired space shuttles are being readied for museums, but there's one piece of equipment at the Kennedy Space Center that dates back to before the moon landing and it's not going anywhere. NASA's giant crawler transporter is the only machine with enough muscle to move Apollo rockets and space shuttles out to the launch pad, and after nearly 50 years on the job the agency's decided there's still no better way to transport heavy loads.
It’s about as wide as a six lane highway, higher than a two story building, with huge caterpillar treads at each of its four corners. With the mobile launch platform and a rocket or space shuttle on its back, the crawler en route for the launch pad was like a skyscraper rolling slowly down a highway.
Regular roads can’t handle the five and a half million pound weight of the crawler.
“If you drive on some of the roads out here where we’ve traversed it’s like riding a roller coaster, because we’ve done some damage to the roads with our weight, especially in the heat of the summer," says lead system engineer Russell Stoewe.
NASA has two crawler transporters.
Crawler two is being upgraded from its current lifting capacity of 12 million pounds -- the combined weight of the shuttle and mobile launcher -- to 18 million pounds, for NASA's new heavy lift rocket.
Mechanic Wilson Williams, who's worked at the space center since 1968 -- nearly as long as the crawler itself -- says it's the biggest project he's ever worked on. "It’s a challenge. A lot of new things, new engines, new exhausts, new brakes, new hydraulics, new computers."
Getting inside the crawler is like boarding a battleship -- up a ladder, along a walkway and through a low doorway. There are four big diesel engines inside, similar to what you might find on an old Naval ship.
The two engines supplying onboard power are being replaced, but the engines powering the generators which drive the caterpillar tracks are staying put. "We baby them," says Russell Stoewe. He says the manufacturers have looked inside the engines and say they're in pristine condition.
The crawler re-fit is part of a $2 billion plan to modernize the Kennedy Space Center, and as NASA moves to partner with commercial rocket companies it aims to make the center as versatile as possible.
The crawlers are listed on a national historic register, but Frank DiBello, the CEO of the economic development agency Space Florida, says it makes sense to keep them going. “We build bridges for far longer than that," says DiBello.
"There is nothing inherent in the basic crawler transporter system that can’t be revitalized over time,” he says.
In fact, about seven years ago, NASA was considering whether to trade the crawler in for something new. Russell Stoewe says the agency looked at rubber-tired vehicles but rejected the idea, partly because of storms that hit the cape.
“If lightning hits the vehicle would we have to inspect, I don’t know how many tires they had, some of them had 80 tires, some of them had 500 tires," says Stoewe.
"There’s a significant amount of labor that goes into that. All of these things were unknowns that added an unknown cost to an already high cost.”
In 1965 NASA spent $14 million to build the transporters. That’s more than $100 million in today’s dollars. Stoewe says it would cost even more now because the U.S. is no longer the industrial powerhouse it was in the 1960s.
While the crawlers are indispensible to NASA, they’ve also made their mark on popular culture, appearing in movies like Apollo 13 and Transformers 3.
Stoewe says the current transformation project won’t improve its speed or gas mileage at all: one mile an hour and 32 feet to the gallon.
But after the work’s complete in 2014, the upgrade will allow this crawler to roll out a new generation of space craft.