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Comet Lovejoy from the space station: spectacular!

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment




International Space Station Commander Dan Burbank captured spectacular imagery of Comet Lovejoy as seen from about 240 miles above the Earth’s horizon on Wednesday, Dec. 21. Burbank described seeing the comet as “the most amazing thing I have ever seen in space,” in an interview with WDIV-TV in Detroit. MORE

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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After the International Space Station: A gateway to deep space

January 12, 2011 Leave a comment
A "gateway" station between Earth and the moon could be a stepping stone out of Earth orbit for future deep-space exploration. (Artist concept of gateway station courtesy John Frassanito & Associates.) http://www.frassanito.com

A "gateway" station between Earth and the moon could be a stepping stone out of Earth orbit for future deep-space exploration. (Artist concept of gateway station courtesy John Frassanito & Associates.)



Imagine it’s New Year’s Day, 2021. The previous year, NASA officially shuttered the International Space Station. The last astronaut has turned off the lights and landed safely.

Then what? Then WHERE?

This week, one of our senior civil servant scientists, Harley Thronson, University of Texas partner Dan Lester, and aerospace industry colleague Ted Talay published an intriguing scenario in the online journal Space Review. They explain how the United States could continue to field astronauts in space despite the recent decision to abandon the return-to-the-moon plan that reigned though most of the last decade.

The idea would be to establish a “gateway” deep-space station between Earth and the moon as a stepping stone out of low-Earth orbit for our astronauts. The coolest thing is: It could be done without the Space Shuttle, using existing launch systems such as the Delta 4, that routinely and reliably launch heavy payloads already. To save on weight, much of the station’s inhabitable space would be a thick-walled, multi-layer inflatable donut-shaped structure.

A TransHab inflatable module

A TransHab inflatable module

Thronson, Talay, and Lester are by no means the first or the only ones to propose an inflatable gateway station. The concept has been in development in various guises and by various people – from NASA itself to the private “space hotel” company Bigelow Aerospace – since the late 1990s. Catch up on the tech here at the Wikipedia article about the “TransHab” concept for the lunar gateway.

Thronson is Associate Director for Advanced Concepts and Planning in the Astrophysics Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and is involved in major initiatives to develop future large optical systems for use in space and the capabilities to build them. He started thinking about the space gateway concept in 1999, while serving on NASA’s Decade Planning Team. The group sketched out a number of next-generation concepts for human space exploration — including inflatable space habitat designs.

Thronson is still at it a decade later, and will be presenting his team’s ideas at various journals and conferences in the near future. In this week’s article, they describe their latest formulation for the gateway station. An earlier article, published in February 2010, gives additional background.

“Such a ‘Gateway’ could be the first step beyond [low-Earth orbit] in a flexible path, including returning humans to the Moon and supporting surface operations there. These habitats have also been proposed to demonstrate next-generation systems developed on the ISS that will be necessary for missions beyond the Earth-Moon system. This ‘beachhead’ for longer-range human operations at these libration points may eventually provide opportunities for other missions. For example, assembly and upgrade of complex science facilities and support for space depot systems may be carried out at these sites.”

Here are the basic bullet points for Thronson, Lester, and Talay’s gateway concept:

  • Launch a fuel tanker into low-Earth orbit.
  • Launch the station into orbit and refuel the Delta’s liquid-fuel second stage.
  • Boost outward to L1 or L2, locations between Earth and the moon where their gravity balances out and it thus requires minimal fuel to maintain the station’s position. This would be about 60,000 kilometers (37,300 miles) from the moon.
  • Send a crew of three to the station. Up to four crews could go to the station per year, each requiring two Delta 4 Heavy launches.
  • The pressurized interior volume of the station would be 170 cubic meters. (The space shuttle orbiter has 71.5 cubic meters, NASA’s Skylab had 283, and the ISS has around 1,000.)
  • The crew could remain for a few months at a time. This would be an opportunity to continue learning how to live and work in deep space in anticipation of future trips to near-Earth asteroids or Mars.

But here’s the really cool part. The station would be close enough to the moon to allow near-instantaneous communication with robots. Astronauts could explore the lunar surface using telepresence technology. Their view would be unhindered by bulky helmets ands suits, allowing them to experience and explore the environment in a way undreamt by the pioneering Apollo moon walkers.

That, my friends, would be Very Cool, not to mention electrifying to the public and to students.

In the end, the gateway model is a way of laying smaller, more achievable (not to mention affordable) “stepping stones” into space. And there’s still plenty to explore.

In the first of a series of articles, “The Case for the Moon: Why We Should Go Back Now,” running this week on Space.com. The reporter interviewed one of our solar system scientists for the article:

“The Apollo astronauts made only brief visits to only six places on the moon, all near the equator,” said Richard Vondrak, deputy director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Our most recent missions, such as LRO and LCROSS, are revealing new secrets of the moon and helping us to identify new places to go, such as the polar regions.”

Although the future of U.S. human space flight is somewhat uncertain right now, the dream of space exploration burns as brightly as ever.

Robonaut, a telepresence robot under development at NASA.

Robonaut, a telepresence robot under development at NASA.

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.


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Gogblog vodcast #2: Watch an Atlas 5 launch of a military satellite from Goddard's Flight Dynamics Facility

September 27, 2010 1 comment

One recent Saturday in August, I woke at 4:30 a.m., rubbed my eyes in the early morning darkness, and headed for Goddard Space Flight Center to watch the launch of an Atlas 5. The rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, carrying a military communications satellite into high geosynchronous orbit.

My perch: the Flight Dynamics Facility, which I described in an earlier post about FDF’s support of Shuttle and Space Station missions.

The FDF operations area is a large room packed with computer workstations. The mission of the FDF is to provide precise pointing coordinates to enable ground stations and satellites to track launch vehicles like the Atlas V into space. FDF also pitches in to track the Shuttle orbiter and the Space Station in low-Earth orbit to maintain links to the ground.

This video, with voiceover by FDF junior systems engineer Jason Laing, explains some of the major events in the launch of the Atlas V:

http://www.youtube.com/v/XRKWewWDP_E?fs=1&hl=en_US

Today the Atlas will carry the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite, the first of three. The system will provide secure global military communications between ground, sea, and air.

Start of show: I got in at around 6 a.m. and met the lead engineer for this launch, Syed Hasan. Bleary-eyed but alert, he got in at 12:30 a.m. to begin check-outs of the computer and communications systems. By Syed’s side for the launch: James Cappellari. A nearly 50-year veteran of NASA, Cappellari helped to develop and implement the Space Network. I deposited the obligatory bucket of donut-like objects in the FDF break room and got ready for “start of show.”

Start of show in the FDF is 10 minutes before launch, which today is slated for 7:07 a.m. At start of show, a TDRS satellite hovering above the U.S. East Coast will start tracking the Atlas right on the pad. Today it is TDRS 10, but TDRS 4 is also available for East Coast launches.

artist concept of the AEHF satellite

The AEHF satellite

FDF’s partner in this and other launches is the White Sands Complex in New Mexico, which controls the satellites comprising NASA’s Space Network. Eight TDRS satellites currently provide global tracking, communications, and data links for manned and unmanned spacecraft. When rockets phone home, it is often via the TDRS network.

About the time I arrived at FDF, Syed sent something to White Sands called an autothroughput test vector. This tests the system that would allow FDF to send pointing data directly to the TDRS satellites during launch, bypassing White Sands.

But that would only happen if the satellites drifted off their targets and needed to be repointed. Throughout the launch the ELV (expendable launch vehicle) team at FDF watches to make sure the satellites are pointing at the rocket and able to track it accurately. FDF supports 10 to 15 ELV launches per year.

The rocket “talks” to the ground via data links, so accurate pointing is important. During Space Station missions, accurate pointing of TDRS’ high bandwidth antennas allows astronauts and cosmonauts to wave hello to us earthlings via video downlink. Scientific spacecraft also use TDRS to pipe data to the surface on a regular basis. Without accurate pointing of the TDRS satellites, NASA’s operations in low-earth orbit would be much more limited.

photo of Syed Hasan and James Cappellari

Syed Hasan (left) and James Cappellari

As lead engineer on the ELV team today, Syed runs some FDF software called acquisition data generator, which he would use to create and send a pointing correction vector during launch, if needed. Rows of numbers on his monitor allows Syed to keep an eye on the actual “beam angles” of the TDRS antennas indicating what direction they point.

But FDF now has another tool in their kit for making sure the Space Network is on target. It’s called the SN Beams Display, and it was developed by FDF engineers with a combination of commercial and in-house software code. Today, FDF’s John Bez is manning the SN Beams.

The SN Beams creates a live view of the spacecraft from pad to orbit as well as the TDRS “beams.” Each beam is a cone of space, rendered in green or white, that indicates the position and coverage of the antenna. When a launch vehicle or satellite leaves the beam, it is out of range to that particular satellite, and another in the network must pick up the tracking — sort of like relay racers passing the baton.

During launches, the SN Beams provides visual clues to the FDF about the difference between where each satellite is supposed to be pointing (green), based on pre-calculated pointing data, and where the satellites are actually pointing (white).

Two other members of the team, Eric Smith and Jason Laing, are on hand to check the position of the launch vehicle at several key stages of the launch based on actual telemetry data from the rocket. For this they use two terminals running the “LRP” software, for Launch Reentry Processor. If the craft is not where it’s supposed to be, it might be necessary to adjust the pointing data for the TDRS satellites.

Here is a video of the launch of the AEHF rocket! This is video from the launch contractor, ULA:

http://www.youtube.com/v/eqymxhJCEU0&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&version=3

Atlas away! The magic moment finally comes at 7:07 a.m., when the Russian-made RD-180 main engine roars to life, supplemented by four solid rocket boosters strapped onto the first stage.

10…9…8…7… you know the rest. There is something about a countdown that is thrilling. It’s a high-stakes game when you launch a multi-billion dollar satellite. There is little room for error.

The early events happen quickly.

At 1:40 into the launch the SRBs cut out; 16 seconds later they jettison. The SN Beams shows this in detail, as three little cartoon SRBs pop off the Atlas V booster and fall into the video game Atlantic Ocean. The live feed from Florida just shows the brilliant plume of the rocket receding into the blue sky.

At 3:27 the faring on the front of the Atlas pops open like two clamshells, exposing the satellite mounted to the top of a Centaur second-stage booster. The main engine is still burning.

At 4:17 the main engine shuts down, an event FDF people call MECO (“mee-koe”), for main engine cut-off. After a short coast, the second stage “Centaur” fires up.

photo of engineers in FDF during atlas launch

Light that candle!

At 14:08, the Centaur shuts off and the vehicle coasts for almost 8 minutes. Then, at 22:17, it fires up again for about 5 minutes to accelerate the satellite into the higher geosynchronous orbit. The Centaur will cut out and finally release the AEHF satellite 51 minutes into the launch.

Two hours after launch, it’s “end of show” for the FDF. At this point, FDF no longer has responsibility for supplying pointing data to White Sands. However, they continue to monitor for some time, just in case their services are needed.

Big fat planet: I have to say, watching this all on the SN Beams was a real surprise to me, because it shows just how huge Earth is and how puny even the mighty Atlas V is in comparison. After the rocket had been blasting away furiously for almost five minutes, it was still barely over the Atlantic Ocean, heading east.

At 10 minutes, the launch vehicle was screaming through the atmosphere at more than 15,000 mph, the Centaur was still firing. After 20 minutes, the craft was barely over West Africa. At the moment the satellite was released, 51 minutes into the launch, it hadn’t completed a single orbit yet.

This tells you that Earth is BIG and massive. Escaping its gravity to a geosynchronous altitude of 22,500 miles requires a lot of fuel and a lot of time.

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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Gogblog Vodcast #1: Here's what a Shuttle launch looks like at Goddard's Flight Dynamics Facility

August 5, 2010 6 comments

For the past three decades, whenever NASA launched a space shuttle, people at Goddard Space Flight Center’s Flight Dynamics Facility (FDF) have played a critical role, quietly in the background. Their mission: to provide precise pointing coordinates to allow antennas on the ground and in space to track the orbiter as it blasts into orbit and circles Earth.

The computer animation below gives you a feel for what a launch looks like from the FDF. (Click the image and a Quicktime movie should open up in a new window and start playing.) The voice-over narration was kindly provided by FDF junior systems engineer Jason Laing.


shuttle_launch_still

CLICK the image above to see the Shuttle launch movie!
Download the animation as a .m4v file you can play with iTunes
Download the high-resolution 47 Mb Quicktime movie version


The animation shows the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) system picking up the orbiter in flight and tracking it. FDF engineers created the animation using software they developed themselves as well as a commercial package called Satellite Toolkit, or STK.

As the orbiter circles Earth, TDRS satellites “hand over” tracking responsibility from one satellite to the next. TDRS 4, in geosynchronous orbit over the U.S. East Coast, picks up the shuttle over Florida during launch.

FDF engineer Jason Laing at his station

FDF engineer Jason Laing at his station

The tracking satellite’s antenna, as you can see in the visualization, has a relatively narrow beam width. The antennas swivel on gimbals so they can follow the orbiter. As one satellite loses its line of site, the next one locks on to the target.

The FDF also provides support for International Space Station (ISS) missions. The last 20 seconds of the visualization shows one TDRS handing over tracking of the International Space Station to the next satellite. High-bandwidth channels on TDRS satellites allow us to watch the astronauts on TV. The TDRS satellites have different antennas for different jobs.

But without the FDF’s support, the satellites wouldn’t know where to point. In future posts, we’ll take a closer look at the amazing technology that whirs and buzzes behind the scenes to allow human spaceflight to happen.

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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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