Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Hubble Space Telescope following release from a space shuttle during a previous service flight.

HUBBLE MISSION A "GO"... Earlier this morning, NASA chief Michael Griffin officially gave the go-ahead to prepare for one last space shuttle flight to repair the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The orbiter that will rendezvous with it will be Discovery, which launched HST into space in April of 1990. Lift-off for this next flight is set no earlier than May of 2008. Two new scientific instruments will be installed onto the orbiting observatory, and its batteries as well as devices used to point the spacecraft (such as its gyroscopes) will be replaced. Also, HST will be fitted with a docking mechanism that will allow a small rocket module to be attached to the telescope in the future...to guide it to a controlled re-entry of Earth's atmosphere once HST finally stops operating about 5 years after the next servicing flight. This will be the sixth shuttle mission—and fifth servicing flight overall—devoted to the space telescope. Astronauts revisited HST in 1993, ’97, ’99 and 2002, respectively, to upgrade it. The next modifications to Hubble should allow it to last at least till 2013, when its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is scheduled to launch.

On April 24, 1990, space shuttle Discovery launches on STS-31...the flight to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope.

The upcoming mission was originally scheduled for 2005...but cancelled in 2004 by then-NASA head honcho Sean O’Keefe following the 2003 Columbia disaster. The reason for this was because astronauts visiting the telescope had no place to seek refuge should a Columbia-type hole be found punctured in Discovery’s heat shield. All shuttles so far have been headed to the International Space Station, where astronauts could seek a safe haven should severe damage be found on their vehicle before the trip home. A rescue mission will be made available for the upcoming Hubble flight...with another shuttle being launched within a one week’s notice should Discovery be deemed unfit to return to Earth. Enough supplies will be placed onboard the spacecraft to allow astronauts to stay in orbit for about 25 days.

Scores of galaxies grace this photo of the Hubble Deep Field...one of the most popular images taken by the space telescope.

In other Discovery-related news, the orbiter is scheduled to be rolled into the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building at Florida's Kennedy Space Center no earlier than 7 PM (Pacific Daylight Time) tonight...where it will be mated with its external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters for its upcoming flight. Discovery is still scheduled to launch December 7 on the next space station assembly mission, designated STS-116. The 2008 Hubble flight is designated STS-125.

UPDATE (November 1): According to NASASpaceflight.com, Atlantis might be used for the Hubble mission...making this the first time the orbiter flew to the telescope, as well as the very last mission for the vehicle before it is retired in 2008.

An astronaut works on Hubble during the last service mission, which took place with space shuttle Columbia on 2002's STS-109 flight.

One more thing... Happy Halloween, everyone!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Space shuttle Columbia lifts off into the night sky on flight STS-109...which was the last servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002.

BACK TO THE SPACE TELESCOPE... Though NASA won't make an official announcment on this till Halloween Tuesday, online sources are stating that the next servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope is all but confirmed. I'll do an official blog on this on Tuesday.

Friday, October 13, 2006

An artist's concept of the ORION spacecraft and Lunar Surface Access Module (lunar lander) in Moon orbit.

ORION 13... According to NASASpaceflight.com, a plan is in place that will return astronauts to the moon on the thirteenth overall flight by NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The mission, dubbed Orion 13, will last 21 days...and will see three members of a four-man crew setting foot on the lunar surface for the first time in 47 years (the last moon mission being Apollo 17 in 1972). Orion 13 will blast off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in December of 2019...if everything goes as planned. The first Orion flight will be an unmanned test flight (labeled Ares I-1) in April of 2009, and the first Orion mission with astronauts onboard will be Orion 5...scheduled to launch in September of 2014. The first operational flight to the International Space Station (where both cargo and a 3-astronaut crew will be onboard the spacecraft) will take place with Orion 7 in May of 2015. Go to the NASASpaceflight website for more details.

An artist's concept of ORION astronauts beginning their exploration of the lunar surface.

What’s actually interesting is NASA choosing Orion 13 to be the flight where we return to the moon. If you’re superstitious, you’d know the implications of that number. Of course, when (not ‘if’) Orion 13 becomes a success...that will make up for the drama that took place on Apollo 13 in 1970. Then again, Apollo 13 was deemed a "successful failure" (go watch the 1995 Tom Hanks film to know what I’m talking about), so Orion 13 really has nothing to prove. Except to show that the Vision for Space Exploration plan set about by George Dubya Bush wasn’t just something Dubya came up with while he was stoned on a cold January day in 2004.

The LSAM's ascent stage blasts off into space after the astronauts' sojourn on the lunar surface.