Mars Express Photographs Universe’s Largest Known Potato; Best Images Ever of Hideously Misshapen Moon

30 July 2008

Mars Express closed in on the intriguing martian moon Phobos at 6:49 CEST on 23 July, flying past at 3 km/s, only 93 km from the moon. The ESA spacecraft’s fly-bys of the moon have returned its most detailed full-disc images ever, also in 3-D, using the High Resolution Stereo Camera on board.

Phobos is what scientists call a ‘small irregular body’. Measuring 27 km × 22 km × 19 km, it is one of the least reflective objects in the Solar System, thought to be a capture-asteroid or a remnant of the material that formed the planets.

The best images of Phobos ever

The HRSC images, which are still under processing, form a bounty for scientists studying Phobos. They are a result of observations carried out over several close fly-bys of the martian moon, performed over the past three weeks. At their best, the pictures have a resolution of 3.7 m/pixel and are taken in five channels (in the stereo channel) for images in 3-D and (in the photometric channels) to perform analyses of the physical properties of the surface.


LRO Delay Clears Way for Launch of Experimental X-37B Spaceplane

The military will launch a sub-scale model of its experimental X-37B space plane from Cape Canaveral in November, taking a launch slot originally set aside for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The LRO launch will be moved back to February or March.

The whale-like vehicle, measuring in at 27 x 15 feet, will be launched atop an Atlas V rocket. It will orbit the Earth before making an automated landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Aviation Week reports.

Ah…But What, You Ask, Does It All Mean?

An artist conception of the WhiteKnightTwo hauling aloft SpaceShipTwo (sold separately). Image credit: Virgin Galactic

That’s an excellent question. Well, you’ve read all the hype, now for a little perspective….

What Virgin’s WhiteKnightTwo Really Means to the Future of Space
Popular Mechanics

Barbara S. Peterson provides an overview of the potential (and some of the possible limitations) of Virgin Galactic’s space tourism plans. It’s an excellent piece, but I won’t excerpt it here for fear that the context might be lost. Read the whole piece.

Colby Cosh: Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is where hype meets hope
National Post (Canada)

As you might guess from the title, Colby is a tad skeptical….

“As a species we’re no closer to truly routine space travel that we were last week—despite the high-flown words of Branson’s address to the attendees…

“Branson has the vague plans to design a SpaceShipThree capable of orbital flight, but the relatively humble materials and fuels he is using for SpaceShipTwo won’t cut the mustard. If it’s possible to get ordinary civilians into orbit through sheer marketing ability, Branson is the man to bet on.”

Rutan: SS2 Not Worked on in a Year; Accident Report Due Soon

Jeff Foust has an update on why SpaceShipTwo remained in the shop while its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft was rolled out on Monday. Apparently, it’s been sitting there at 70 percent complete for the past year while the company thoroughly investigated an explosion that claimed the lives of three workers. Foust quotes designer Burt Rutan as saying:

“We have not worked on SpaceShipTwo in a year because there’s a possibility that the propulsion system would be markedly different and we’d be building things that we would have to scrap.”

Rutan declined to elaborate on technical matters beyond saying that the accident investigation is resulting in “a lot” of changes to the suborbital vehicle. He also said that report on the July 26, 2007 explosion would be released soon.

The comments are in sharp contrast to remarks made by X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, who immediately after the accident publicly claimed that the explosion was unrelated to spaceflight and had no bearing on the safety of the vehicle that Scaled Composites is building for Virgin Galactic.


Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites Roll-out “Eve” Mothership

Sir Richard Branson and designer Burt Rutan walk aside the Virgin Mothership “Eve” (VMS EVE) in Mojave, CA. on the eve of its official rollout on July 28, 2008.

Virgin Galactic Unveils Space Liner Mothership

“With all the pageantry of a king’s arrival, the WhiteKnightTwo — a huge flying launch pad to support passenger suborbital space travel — is making its public debut here today.

“The rollout of the colossal composite plane signals the first phase of a critical test program to establish a private spaceliner business — a venture being bankrolled by British entrepreneur and billionaire, Richard Branson and his Virgin Group.

“Looking like a giant catamaran for the sky, the twin-boom, two individual fuselages are topped by a large, 140-foot (42-meter) long stretch of wing. The aircraft will straddle and carry to drop altitude (around 48,000 feet) the SpaceShipTwo — a six passenger, two pilot craft that, once released, rocket’s pay-per-view passengers to some 65 miles (104 km) above the Earth.”

Virgin Galactic Unveils Launch Plane for Upcoming Spacecraft

“After years of secretive construction, Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic presented the first stage of their commercial launch platform, WhiteKnightTwo, today at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

“Sir Richard Branson explains his motive for creating Virgin Galactic: ‘Seeing the planet from out there surrounded by the incredibly thin layer of atmosphere helps one to wake up to the fragility of the small proportion of the planet’s mass that we inhabit and to the importance of protecting the Earth.'”


Virgin Founder, Sir Richard Branson and SpaceShipOne designer, Burt Rutan, today pulled back the hangar doors on the new WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft that will ferry SpaceShipTwo and thousands of private astronauts, science packages and payload on the first stage of the Virgin Galactic sub-orbital space experience.

The rollout represents another major milestone in Virgin Galactic’s quest to launch the world’s first private, environmentally benign, space access system for people, payload and science.


Whitehorn Claims SpaceShipTwo “Thousands of Times Safer” on Eve of Roll-out; FAA Official Tells Tourism Companies to Get Real on Safety

Almost exactly one year after a fatal explosion that claimed the lives of three Scaled Composites workers, Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn has made an extraordinary safety claim about the as-yet-unflown SpaceShipTwo vehicle during an interview with The Independent.

“Q: New technology involves risk, space travel most certainly does. How can you manage the dangers?

WW: We’re trying to take the riskiest things out of the equation. Ground-based rocketry involves firing a massive explosion under somebody to leave the planet – we’ve eliminated that. So you’re launching in a very safe environment. We’ve hopefully eliminated some of the risks of re-entry, which is another of the most dangerous aspects.

We believe that this will be thousands of times safer than any previous human flights into space.”

The claim came during the same week that George Nield, head of the FAA unit that regulates commercial human space flight, warned space tourism companies to get serious about the risks faced by their wealthy clients.


Happy 50th NASA! Now What?

The Economist has a think-piece about the future of NASA, which turns 50 years old this year. “America’s space agency has reached middle age,” the magazine observes. “Will it now recapture the glory of its youth, or dwindle into decrepitude?”

The article really doesn’t have any clear answers, although the writer does deconstruct several rationales put forth by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and speculates on whether virtual reality will allow almost anyone to visit the Moon and Mars without having to actually go there. Or even give NASA billions of dollars to send anyone. “That, perhaps, is a more subtle threat than NASA realises,” the author observes.

Back to the Moon – with Company

The moon beckons again – for U.S., 8 other nations
Mike Swift
San Jose Mercury News

In hopes of discovering clues to the origin of life on Earth, the United States and eight other nations signed a landmark agreement at NASA’s Ames Research Center this week that scientists hope will lay the groundwork for a new generation of lunar exploration and science.

Unlike the all-American Apollo program, the new agreement sees a multinational fleet of robot spacecraft returning to the moon in coming years, with the maturing space programs of countries like India, Germany and South Korea playing key roles in an effort that ultimately would lead to the return of astronauts.

“It’s sort of like the beginning of a beautiful friendship, like at the end of ‘Casablanca,’ ” James Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said at Moffett Field this week.

Fly Me to the Moon….

ISRO to launch Chandrayaan-I in September

India will launch its first lunar orbiter Chandrayaan-I, in September. The spacecraft will map the moon with a high-resolution high-resolution stereo camera with a resolution of 16 feet. The orbiter’s other instruments include near-infrared and X-ray spectrometers and a laser altimeter.

LRO Launch Delayed to 2009

Aerospace Daily & Defense Report

NASA will delay the launch of its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) from November to late February or early March 2009 because of a launch conflict with the Department of Defense.

The orbiter will map the moon and collect mineralogy data. The mission has a piggyback payload, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), which is designed to send the rocket’s spent upper stage crashing into the moon to search for evidence of water ice.

In Interview, NASA’s “Spock” Comes off as Almost Human

The Guardian has a very well-written story based on an interview it conducted with Mike Griffin during his recent visit to London. The paper reports that the NASA administrator, famous for comparing himself to the greatest Vulcan who ever served in Star Fleet, was in a less than chipper mood on the eve of his agency’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

“For some reason, though – perhaps it’s the windowless room in the basement of the US embassy in London, or the entourage of identical suits looking on from the sidelines – Griffin, who was passing through London on the way to a heads of space agencies meeting in Paris, does not seem like a man about to crack open the party poppers.”

In the interview, Griffin comes off sympathetically – a man truly committed to making humanity a space-faring civilization – eve if he is periodically clueless. He urges the British to join America in sending humans to the moon, defends the expected five-year gap between space shuttle and Orion flights, and claims that NASA is well on its way toward accomplishing George W. Bush’s vision despite all the problems you’ve been reading about with the Constellation program.

“We’re on the right path and it is of course fragile, but I think it’s crucial we remain on it,” he told the paper.


Constellation Crumbling

Another week, another crack in NASA’s Constellation facade….

Concerned by reports that the Ares rockets and Orion crew capsule are beset by cost overruns, schedule delays and complex technical woes, [Buzz] Aldrin says he wants to create a panel of experts to make sure that Constellation is the right way to go.

“‘We need to stick with the mission but rethink some of the ways we implement it,’ said Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. ‘It doesn’t pay to stick with a bad idea.'”

Chief Engineer outlines Ares I-X issues – includes Thrust Oscillation

“A report from Ares I-X’s Chief Engineer has called for the strengthening of the vehicle’s hardware, due to the red risks associated with Thrust Oscillation near the end of first stage burn – which is also threatening the vehicle’s Flight Termination System (FTS) components.

“The vehicle is also requiring mitigation of other multiple issues and concerns – found during the vehicle’s Critical Design Review (CDR) Phase II meeting, though launch remains on track for the Spring of 2009.”

Trench on Mars Ready for Next Sampling by NASA Lander

24 July 2008

NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has groomed the bottom of a shallow trench to prepare for collecting a sample to be analyzed from a hard subsurface layer where the soil may contain frozen water.

Images received Thursday morning confirmed that the lander’s robotic arm had scraped the top of the hard layer clean during activities of Phoenix’s 58th Martian day, or sol, corresponding to overnight Wednesday to Thursday.

The Phoenix team developed commands for sending to the spacecraft Thursday to complete two remaining preparations necessary before collecting a sample and delivering it to the lander’s Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA). One part of the plan for Sol 59 (overnight Thursday to Friday) would assure that the scoop is empty of any soil collected earlier. Another would complete a final cleaning of any volatile materials from the oven that will receive the sample.

In the past two weeks, the team has refined techniques for using a powered rasp on the back of the arm’s scoop to cut and collect shavings of material from the bottom of the trench. The trench, informally named “Snow White,” is 4 to 5 centimeters deep (about 2 inches), about 23 centimeters wide (9 inches), and about 60 centimeters long (24 inches) long.


Orbital, LockMart and General Dynamics Profits Up; Boeing Numbers Fall

Orbital Sciences reports 2Q profit up 87 percent
Associated Press

“Orbital Sciences Corp. posted solid earnings growth for the second quarter Thursday, driven by strong sales in its advanced space programs and launch vehicle operations. The Dulles, Va., company reported earnings jumped 87 percent to $25.8 million, or 43 cents per share, for the second quarter, from $13.8 million, or 23 cents per share, in the second quarter of last year.”

Lockheed 2Q profit up 13 percent
Associated Press

“Lockheed Martin Corp. posted a 13 percent increase in second-quarter earnings Tuesday, beating Wall Street expectations and prompting the company to raise its yearly outlook as it made up a drop in fighter jet sales with strength in its other business units.”

Armored vehicles lift General Dynamics 2Q profit
Associated Press

“Feeding the Pentagon’s demand for armored vehicles helped drive up General Dynamics Corp.’s second quarter profit by 25 percent, lifting shares of the defense contractor, which also raised its outlook for the year on Wednesday. General Dynamics’ stock jumped nearly 7 percent, closing up $5.82 at $89.27 per share.”

Delays hurt Boeing’s 2Q profit, which falls 19 pct
Associated Press

“Delays hurt Boeing Co.’s second-quarter profit, which fell 19 percent because of late delivery of military aircraft and rising costs from the postponed introduction of its 787 jetliner. But the Chicago-based company, the world’s second-largest commercial airplane maker after Europe’s Airbus, reaffirmed its forecasts for 2008 and 2009, saying productivity gains would overcome the quarter’s setbacks.”

Odyssey Moon Names Clementine Veteran Paul Spudis as Chief Scientist


Dr. Paul D. Spudis has been named Chief Scientist of Odyssey Moon Limited, the first official contender for the $30M Google Lunar X PRIZE. Dr. Spudis is a prominent scientist in the international lunar community and served as deputy science team leader for the highly successful Clementine lunar mission and is the Principal Investigator of the Mini-SAR imaging radar experiment on the forthcoming Chandrayaan-1 mission to the Moon.

Dr. Spudis is an outspoken advocate of the Moon as a focus of scientific exploration and human settlement and has served on numerous advisory committees, including the US Presidential Commission on the Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. The announcement was made during a NASA Lunar Science Institute conference at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

A geologist and Senior Staff Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, Dr. Spudis has an extensive background in geology and planetary science, including interpretation of remote-sensing and image data. Dr. Spudis will be applying his combined passions for science and lunar development to help Odyssey Moon deliver a valuable scientific mission while pursuing the $30 Million Google Lunar X PRIZE and an ongoing commercial lunar enterprise.

“Evidence indicates that abundant energy and material resources exist on the Moon, including deposits of ice within craters at the poles,” he said. “Returning to the Moon will teach us the skills we need to live and work productively on other worlds.”


Soyuz Effort Accelerates at Kourou; Russian Rocket Lifts German Spy Sat

The Russians Are Coming…to launch rockets from European base

“Today, though, the Guiana Space Centre (CSG) is girding for a new era when it will host Russian rockets and Russian engineers who just a short while ago were Europe’s space rivals.

“On Sunday, a freighter is due to dock in Cayenne bearing a first consignment of 150 containers of equipment to fit out a launch pad at CSG where, from the second half of 2009, the first “European” Soyuz is scheduled to blast into space.”

Russian Rocket Launches German Reconnaissance Satellite
Spaceflight Today

“The capstone of a fleet of German military satellites rocketed into space from Russia early Tuesday, completing a series of five launchings of spacecraft designed to scout locations around the world.

“The SAR-Lupe 5 satellite, a 1,700-pound craft (771-kg) outfitted with cloud-piercing and night-vision radar, launched aboard a Russian Kosmos 3M rocket at 0240 GMT Tuesday (10:40 p.m. EDT Monday), according to news reports.”