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Friday, February 5, 2016

Photo of the Day: Two Student-Built CubeSats Deployed from the ISS...

Two student-built CubeSats, known as LONESTAR, are released from the robotic arm of Japan's Kibo science module at the International Space Station...on January 29, 2016.
ESA / NASA

Successful Deployment of University Satellites From Space Station (Press Release - February 2)

Expedition 46 flight engineer Tim Peake of ESA captured this photo on Jan. 29, 2016 from the International Space Station, as the robotic arm in Japan's Kibo laboratory successfully deployed two combined satellites from Texas universities. The pair of satellites -- AggieSat4 built by Texas A&M University students, and BEVO-2 built by University of Texas students -- together form the Low Earth Orbiting Navigation Experiment for Spacecraft Testing Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking (LONESTAR) investigation.

The satellites will demonstrate communication protocols between them and with ground stations, as well as systems that allow the satellites to navigate through space and relative to each other and to orient themselves in three dimensions. Flight demonstration of these abilities, necessary for unmanned craft to be able to rendezvous and dock in space without direct human intervention, will contribute to future satellite missions as well.

Source: NASA.Gov

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Orion EM-1 Capsule Is Ready to Complete Assembly...

The Orion Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) capsule is ready to complete assembly inside the Operations & Checkout Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA / Lockheed Martin

New and Improved Orion Crew Module Arrives at Kennedy Space Center (Press Release)

Milestone Marks First Major Delivery of Exploration Mission-1 Flight Hardware

The Lockheed Martin and NASA Orion team has secured the 2,700 lb. Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) Orion crew module into its structural assembly tool, also known as the “birdcage.” The crew module is the living quarters for astronauts and the backbone for many of Orion’s systems such as propulsion, avionics and parachutes.

“The structure shown here is 500 pounds lighter than its Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) counterpart,” said Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion vice president and program manager. “Once the final structural components such as longerons, bolts and brackets are added, total crew module structural weight savings from EFT-1 to EM-1 will total 700 pounds.”

From experience gained by building test articles, building and flying EFT-1, and now building the EM-1 crew module, the Lockheed Martin team is learning how to shed weight, reduce costs and simplify the manufacturing process – all in an effort to improve the production time and cost of future Orions.

“Our very talented team in Louisiana has manufactured a great product and now they have passed the baton to Florida,” said Hawes. “This is where we assemble, test and launch, and the fun really begins.”

At Kennedy Space Center, the crew module will undergo several tests to ensure the structure is perfectly sound before being integrated with other elements of the spacecraft. First it will undergo proof-pressure testing where the structural welds are stress tested to confirm it can withstand the environments it will experience in space. The team will then use phased array technology to inspect the welds to make sure there are no defects. Additional structural tests will follow including proof-pressure testing of the fluid system welds and subsequent x-ray inspections.

Once the crew module passes those tests it will undergo final assembly, integration and entire vehicle testing in order to prepare for EM-1, when Orion is launched atop NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) for the first time. The test flight will send Orion into lunar distant retrograde orbit – a wide orbit around the moon that is farther from Earth than any human-rated spacecraft has ever traveled. The mission will last about three weeks and will certify the design and safety of Orion and SLS for future human-rated exploration missions.

Source: Lockheed Martin

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After being offloaded from the Super Guppy aircraft (background) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Orion EM-1 capsule is ready to be transported to the Operations & Checkout Facility for final assembly.
NASA / Lockheed Martin

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

More on Exploration Mission-1: Testing the Prototype Solar Sail for NEA Scout...

An artist's concept of the NEA Scout solar sail studying an asteroid.
NASA

NASA Tests Solar Sail Deployment for Asteroid-Surveying CubeSat NEA Scout (Press Release - February 2)

Progress continues on the journey to Mars as NASA plans to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including to an asteroid and ultimately to the surface of Mars. Before humans embark on the journey, the agency will survey an asteroid to learn about the risks and challenges asteroids may pose to future human explorers.

One way NASA will do this is by performing a reconnaissance flyby of an asteroid with Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout. NEA Scout -- a CubeSat, or small satellite -- will launch as a secondary payload on the inaugural flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the world’s most powerful rocket, scheduled to launch in 2018. Information gained from NEA Scout’s flyby will enhance the agency’s understanding of asteroids and their environments and will help reduce risk for future exploration of asteroids and small planetary bodies.

NEA Scout’s second mission objective will be to develop and verify a low-cost reconnaissance platform capable of carrying a wide range of research spacecraft to many destinations. To do this, NEA Scout will utilize a solar sail, harnessing solar pressure to propel the spacecraft.

NEA Scout’s solar sail will be larger and travel farther than any NASA has ever deployed in space. “As a propulsion system that doesn’t require any propellant, solar sails have a lot of potential,” said Les Johnson, NEA Scout’s solar sail principal investigator. “In the future, solar sails can take spacecraft to the outermost regions of the solar system faster than ever before.”

NEA Scout’s flight solar sail will be 86 square meters, approximately the length of a full-size school bus. Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, recently conducted a series of tests with a sail roughly half that size -- 36 square meters to verify the folding and deployment of the sail in deep space.

“We were able to zero in some specifics of design, motor size, hardware attrition and even the time required to fold and deploy the sail,” said Tiffany Russell Lockett, NEA Scout Sail systems engineer. Next spring, the team will build and test a full-size engineering development unit.

Only one-third of NEA Scout’s total size can be dedicated to the solar sail. Each of the 13 CubeSats hitching a ride on the SLS will be the size of a large shoebox and weigh less than 30 pounds. For the school bus-size sail to fit within the small space requirements, it will have to be meticulously folded and then unpacked in space. To test the folding and deployment process, engineers built a low-cost test article using parts left over from previous programs.

“We were fortunate to have parts so readily available to test these new techniques,” said NEA Scout Project Manager Leslie McNutt. “It’s a fabulous opportunity for us to learn more before building our engineering development unit.”

The lightweight assembly consists of three 3D printed spools -- an oblong spool that contains the sail’s material and two smaller spools, each containing two booms, or the sail’s arms. The booms -- which will unfold the sail and hold it in place during flight -- are strong, yet flexible.

“The booms are much like a handyman’s metal tape measure. They are very strong when held out straight, and when bent they become flexible enough to be wound around the spools -- saving space,” said McNutt.

The sail’s material, a strong plastic with aluminum coating, is as thin as a human hair and has to be meticulously folded and wrapped around the oblong spool. Once in space, the booms -- each attached to a different corner of the sail -- will extend, unpacking the solar sail.

“We successfully tested a new folding technique that has never been used before with solar sails,” said McNutt. “The sail material is folded like an accordion and unreels like a bow tie as the booms deploy.”

To simulate a microgravity environment similar to that in space, the team used Marshall’s Flat Floor Facility -- the world’s flattest floor. “We connected air bearings to the ends of the booms,” said McNutt. “That allowed the booms to float on a thin layer of air above the floor, offsetting the effects of Earth’s gravity.”

McNutt believes solar sails like NEA Scout’s could be a game changer in the future of deep-space missions. “In the past, they have been relatively small,” she said. “Advances like NEA Scout’s sail could enable larger and larger spacecraft. The larger the spacecraft, the larger the solar sail will need to be. You have to work your way up -- this is a step in the direction of bigger and better.”

NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) manages NEA Scout with the team led at Marshall Space Flight Center with support from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. AES infuses new technologies developed by NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate and partners with the Science Mission Directorate to address the unknowns and mitigate risks for crews and systems during future human exploration missions.

Source: NASA.Gov

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

NASA Reveals 7 of 13 Hitchhikers That Will Fly Aboard the SLS in 2018...

An artist's concept of NASA's Lunar Flashlight surveying the Moon.
NASA

NASA Space Launch System’s First Flight to Send Small Sci-Tech Satellites Into Space (Press Release)

The first flight of NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), will carry 13 CubeSats to test innovative ideas along with an uncrewed Orion spacecraft in 2018.

These small satellite secondary payloads will carry science and technology investigations to help pave the way for future human exploration in deep space, including the journey to Mars. SLS’ first flight, referred to as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), provides the rare opportunity for these small experiments to reach deep space destinations, as most launch opportunities for CubeSats are limited to low-Earth orbit.

“The 13 CubeSats that will fly to deep space as secondary payloads aboard SLS on EM-1 showcase the intersection of science and technology, and advance our journey to Mars,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman.

The secondary payloads were selected through a series of announcements of flight opportunities, a NASA challenge and negotiations with NASA’s international partners.

“The SLS is providing an incredible opportunity to conduct science missions and test key technologies beyond low-Earth orbit," said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This rocket has the unprecedented power to send Orion to deep space plus room to carry 13 small satellites – payloads that will advance our knowledge about deep space with minimal cost.”

NASA selected two payloads through the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) Broad Agency Announcement:

Skyfire - Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Denver, Colorado, will develop a CubeSat to perform a lunar flyby of the moon, taking sensor data during the flyby to enhance our knowledge of the lunar surface

Lunar IceCube - Morehead State University, Kentucky, will build a CubeSat to search for water ice and other resources at a low orbit of only 62 miles above the surface of the moon

Three payloads were selected by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate:

Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout will perform reconnaissance of an asteroid, take pictures and observe its position in space

BioSentinel will use yeast to detect, measure and compare the impact of deep space radiation on living organisms over long durations in deep space

Lunar Flashlight will look for ice deposits and identify locations where resources may be extracted from the lunar surface

Two payloads were selected by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate:

CuSP a “space weather station” to measure particles and magnetic fields in space, testing practicality for a network of stations to monitor space weather

LunaH-Map will map hydrogen within craters and other permanently shadowed regions throughout the moon’s south pole

Three additional payloads will be determined through NASA’s Cube Quest Challenge – sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and designed to foster innovations in small spacecraft propulsion and communications techniques. CubeSat builders will vie for a launch opportunity on SLS’ first flight through a competition that has four rounds, referred to as ground tournaments, leading to the selection in 2017 of the payloads to fly on the mission.

NASA has also reserved three slots for payloads from international partners. Discussions to fly those three payloads are ongoing, and they will be announced at a later time.

On this first flight, SLS will launch the Orion spacecraft to a stable orbit beyond the moon to demonstrate the integrated system performance of Orion and the SLS rocket prior to the first crewed flight. The first configuration of SLS that will fly on EM-1 is referred to as Block I and will have a minimum 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capability and be powered by twin boosters and four RS-25 engines. The CubeSats will be deployed following Orion separation from the upper stage and once Orion is a safe distance away. Each payload will be ejected with a spring mechanism from dispensers on the Orion stage adapter. Following deployment, the transmitters on the CubeSats will turn on, and ground stations will listen for their beacons to determine the functionality of these small satellites.

Source: NASA.Gov

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A composite image showing the Space Launch System at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA

Monday, February 1, 2016

EM-1 Update - Orion's Next Stop: Kennedy Space Center!

At NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, Louisiana, the Super Guppy is ready to receive the Orion EM-1 spacecraft for transport to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for final assembly...on February 1, 2016.
NASA

Super Guppy Ready to Transport the Orion Spacecraft (Press Release)

NASA's Super Guppy aircraft readies to transport the Orion spacecraft pressure vessel for Exploration Mission-1 from the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The pressure vessel will fly on the first integrated launch of Orion and NASA's powerful new rocket, the Space Launch System. The test flight, which will fly without crew, will demonstrate the agency’s new capability to launch future deep space missions, which include missions to an asteroid and Mars.

The Super Guppy has a cargo compartment that is 25 feet tall, 25 feet wide and 111 feet long and can carry more than 26 tons. The aircraft has unique hinged nose that can open more than 200 degrees, allowing large pieces of cargo to be loaded and unloaded from the front.

Source: NASA.Gov

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At NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, Louisiana, the Super Guppy receives the Orion EM-1 spacecraft for transport to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for final assembly...on February 1, 2016.
NASA

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Day of Remembrance...

The crew of mission STS-51L.

Today, we honor those who perished in the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia tragedies. As we mark the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster this morning, let us remember the 17 brave souls who gave their lives in our quest to explore the unknown and advance our knowledge of the cosmos. May they rest in peace... Ad astra.

The crew of mission STS-107.

The crew of Apollo 1.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Video of the Day: New Shepard Rises (and Lands) Once Again...

A New Shepard rocket is about to touch down at Blue Origin's launch site in West Texas after a successful flight 101.7 kilometers (63.2 miles) into space, on January 22, 2016.
Blue Origin

Check out the awesome video below showing Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket blasting off towards the boundary of space yesterday before safely returning to its launch site in West Texas. In the previous flight that took place on November 23 of last year, New Shepard rose to an altitude of 329,839 feet (100.5 kilometers, or 62.5 miles) before heading back to Earth. This time around, the booster soared a little bit higher...reaching an apogee of 333,582 feet (101.7 kilometers, or 63.2 miles) before descending to its desert drop zone. It will be a momentous day when Blue Origin sends another New Shepard rocket beyond Earth's atmosphere—with humans riding aboard its capsule. It would be a momentous day, indeed.

An unmanned capsule is about to touch down at Blue Origin's launch site in West Texas after a successful flight 101.7 kilometers (63.2 miles) into space, on January 22, 2016.
Blue Origin


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

More Plant Life Flourishes Aboard the ISS...

Zinnia flowers grow aboard the International Space Station...as of January 16, 2016.
NASA

First Flower Grown in Space Station's Veggie Facility (Press Release)

On Jan. 16, 2016, Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly shared photographs of a blooming zinnia flower in the Veggie plant growth system aboard the International Space Station. Kelly wrote, "Yes, there are other life forms in space! #SpaceFlower #YearInSpace"

This flowering crop experiment began on Nov. 16, 2015, when NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren activated the Veggie system and its rooting "pillows" containing zinnia seeds. The challenging process of growing the zinnias provided an exceptional opportunity for scientists back on Earth to better understand how plants grow in microgravity, and for astronauts to practice doing what they’ll be tasked with on a deep space mission: autonomous gardening. In late December, Kelly found that the plants "weren't looking too good," and told the ground team, “You know, I think if we’re going to Mars, and we were growing stuff, we would be responsible for deciding when the stuff needed water. Kind of like in my backyard, I look at it and say ‘Oh, maybe I should water the grass today.’ I think this is how this should be handled.”

The Veggie team on Earth created what was dubbed “The Zinnia Care Guide for the On-Orbit Gardener,” and gave basic guidelines for care while putting judgment capabilities into the hands of the astronaut who had the plants right in front of him. Rather than pages and pages of detailed procedures that most science operations follow, the care guide was a one-page, streamlined resource to support Kelly as an autonomous gardener. Soon, the flowers were on the rebound, and on Jan. 12, pictures showed the first peeks of petals beginning to sprout on a few buds.

Source: NASA.Gov

Friday, January 15, 2016

EM-1 Update: Orion Will Soon Head to Kennedy Space Center to Complete Assembly...

At NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, Louisiana, engineers complete welding on the pressure vessel for the Orion EM-1 capsule...which makes its maiden flight aboard the Space Launch System in late 2018.
NASA

Engineers Mark Completion of Orion’s Pressure Vessel (Press Release)

NASA’s Orion spacecraft is another step closer to launching on its first mission to deep space atop the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. On Jan. 13, technicians at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans finished welding together the primary structure of the Orion spacecraft destined for deep space, marking another important step on the journey to Mars.

“We’ve started off the year with a key step in our process to get ready for Exploration Mission-1, when together Orion and SLS will travel farther than a spacecraft built for humans has ever traveled,” said Mike Sarafin, Exploration Mission-1 manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This brings us closer to our goal of testing our deep space exploration systems in the proving ground of lunar space before we begin sending astronauts days to weeks from Earth.”

Welding Orion’s seven large aluminum pieces, which began in September 2015, involved a meticulous process. Engineers prepared and outfitted each element with strain gauges and wiring to monitor the metal during the process. The pieces were joined using a state-of-the-art process called friction-stir welding, which produces incredibly strong bonds by transforming metals from a solid into a plastic-like state, and then using a rotating pin tool to soften, stir and forge a bond between two metal components to form a uniform welded joint, a vital requirement of next-generation space hardware.

“The team at Michoud has worked incredibly hard produce a lightweight, yet incredibly durable Orion structure ready for its mission thousands of miles beyond the moon,” said Mark Kirasich, Orion program manager. “The work to get us to this point has been essential. Orion’s pressure vessel is the foundation on which all of the spacecraft’s systems and subsystems are going to be built and integrated.”

The pressure vessel provides a sealed environment for astronaut life support in future human-rated crew modules. After final checkouts, technicians will prepare the pressure vessel for shipment to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the agency’s Super Guppy aircraft. At Kennedy, it will undergo several tests to ensure the structure is sound before being integrated with other elements of the spacecraft.

The uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 will pave the way for future missions with astronauts. During the flight, in which SLS and Orion will launch from NASA’s modernized spaceport at Kennedy, the spacecraft will venture to a distant retrograde orbit around the moon. This first exploration mission will allow NASA to use the lunar vicinity as a proving ground to test technologies farther from Earth, and demonstrate it can get to a stable orbit near the moon in order to support sending humans to deep space.

Source: NASA.Gov

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At NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, Louisiana, engineers complete welding on the pressure vessel for the Orion EM-1 capsule...which makes its maiden flight aboard the Space Launch System in late 2018.
NASA

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Dream Chaser Will Head to the ISS in 2019...

An artist's concept of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser cargo ship docked to the International Space Station (ISS).
Sierra Nevada Corporation

NASA Awards International Space Station Cargo Transport Contracts (Press Release)

NASA has awarded three cargo contracts to ensure the critical science, research and technology demonstrations that are informing the agency’s journey to Mars are delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) from 2019 through 2024. The agency unveiled its selection of Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia; Sierra Nevada Corporation of Sparks, Nevada; and SpaceX of Hawthorne, California to continue building on the initial resupply partnerships with two American companies.

These Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2) contracts are designed to obtain cargo delivery services to the space station, disposal of unneeded cargo, and the return of research samples and other cargo from the station back to NASA.

“Few would have imagined back in 2010 when President Barack Obama pledged that NASA would work ‘with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable,’ that less than six years later we’d be able to say commercial carriers have transported 35,000 pounds of space cargo (and counting!) to the International Space Station -- or that we’d be so firmly on track to return launches of American astronauts to the ISS from American soil on American commercial carriers. But that is exactly what is happening,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Today's announcement is a big deal that will move the president’s vision further into the future.”

The contracts, which begin upon award, guarantee a minimum of six cargo resupply missions from each provider. The contracts also include funding ISS integration, flight support equipment, special tasks and studies, and NASA requirement changes.

“The second generation of commercial cargo services to low-Earth orbit begins today,” said Kirk Shireman, ISS Program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “By engaging American companies for cargo transportation, we can focus our attention on using this one-of-a-kind laboratory in the sky to continue advancing scientific knowledge for the benefit of all humanity.”

Selecting multiple providers assures access to ISS so crew members can continue to conduct the vital research of the National Lab. Awarding multiple contracts provides more options and reduces risk through a variety of launch options and mission types, providing the ISS program a robust portfolio of cargo services that will be necessary to maximize the utility of the station.

NASA has not yet ordered any missions, but will make a total of six selections from each menu of mission options at fixed prices, as needed. Each task order has milestones with specified amounts and performance dates. Each mission requires complex preparation and several years of lead time. Discussions and engineering assessments will begin soon, leading to integration activities later this year to ensure all space station requirements are met, with the first missions beginning in late 2019.

“These resupply flights will be conducted in parallel with our Commercial Crew Program providers’ flights that enable addition of a seventh astronaut to the International Space Station. This will double the amount of crew time to conduct research,” said Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the ISS Program. “These missions will be vital for delivering the experiments and investigations that will enable NASA and our partners to continue this important research.”

The agency applied knowledge gained from the first commercial resupply contracts with Orbital ATK and SpaceX and required a number of key enhancements for these contracts. This includes starting with a requirement for a minimum of six missions as opposed to delivery of metric tons; a variety of delivery, return and disposal capabilities for both pressurized and unpressurized cargo, as well as an optional accelerated return; and the addition of an insurance requirement to cover damage to government property during launch services, reentry services or transportation to, from, in proximity of, or docking with the space station.

While the maximum potential value of all contracts is $14 billion from 2016 through 2024, NASA will order missions, as needed, and the total prices paid under the contract will depend on which mission types are ordered.

“We plan to order services based on our current estimates of station needs, which provides NASA important flexibility to maximize the use of the space station,” said Shireman. “We look forward to beginning work with these new contractors to understand the details of the services that they have proposed and understand the details of how these services will benefit ISS. The indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract enables us to adjust as necessary for additional missions or contingencies so we can provide the greatest benefits possible from this great international asset.”

NASA’s service contracts to resupply the space station have changed the way the agency does business in low-Earth orbit. With these contracts, NASA continues to advance commercial spaceflight and the American jobs it creates.

For 15 years, humans have been living continuously aboard the space station to advance scientific knowledge and demonstrate new technologies, making research breakthroughs not possible on Earth that also will enable long-duration human and robotic exploration into deep space. A truly global endeavor, more than 200 people from 15 countries have visited the unique microgravity laboratory that has hosted more than 1,700 research investigations from researchers in more than 83 countries.

Source: NASA.Gov

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The Dragon CRS-2 spacecraft floats near the ISS prior to the SpaceX vehicle being berthed to the orbital outpost on March 3, 2013.
NASA

Cygnus Orb-4 (also known as the 'S.S. Deke Slayton II') floats near the ISS as its robotic arm (not visible) waits to grapple the cargo freighter on December 9, 2015.
Scott Kelly / NASA and Sergey Volkov / Roscosmos